Lina Correal thinks about it all the time: how fun it would be to work behind the cash register of a retailer, to make change for customers, stock shelves, to do inventory. But she would need a work permit, and that’s something only the government can decide.
In fact, Correal (whose name has been changed) could have bought a fraudulent Social Security number and used it to find work. It would have helped her feed her three children, who subsist on the wages her husband makes driving for a South Coast farm. But it would not have been an honest choice. The idea of having an employer ask for her papers is too frightening. Better to avoid it altogether.
“It’s scary for me to present my identity,” she says. “I know it’s not good. It’s not me.”
What frightens her even more is the prospect of being separated from her children and deported to Mexico for some minor infraction or simply on the basis of her immigration violation, as are thousands in the U.S. today.
The only thing that could give Correal some relief is DAPA, President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, an executive order providing temporary protection from deportation and a work permit.
Unfortunately, Correal, her husband and 3.7 million other unlawful immigrants are trapped in a high-stakes legal showdown playing out in a federal court in Texas. The judge has refused to lift an injunction on Obama’s executive order. About half the country, or 26 states, have joined the case, which is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, so the prospect of immigration reform is more uncertain than ever.
Nevertheless, “the message has been about hope,” says Rita Mancera, Deputy Executive Director of Puente. “The last amnesty was in 1986, so we hope something is going to happen to give relief to people who have worked here for many years.”
President Obama’s immigration announcement last November went off like a starting gun at Puente’s offices. Puente estimates that over 120 local parents have a son or daughter born in the U.S. and could therefore qualify for DAPA, although the number is very likely much higher.
Within weeks of the announcement, Puente staff members had personally called many people in the community with information about DAPA, designed a flyer, and scheduled a community information session with immigration attorneys.
Since then, six staff members have collectively logged 240 hours of training on immigration law through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which will help them screen qualified applicants (and spot red flags, such as anyone with a criminal record).
Puente itself will shortly obtain Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition, and Mancera is on track to receive legal worker accreditation to work with program participants on the government’s behalf.
“The government may not be ready, but we are. We could start tomorrow,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente.
After years of living in the shadows, parents like Correal, a bubbly woman in her late 40s, must now prove to the government that they were here on January 1, 2010 and every month thereafter. Correal’s husband, Luis, has his name on most of the bills, rental agreements and other documents pertaining to their home and family.
On the other hand, Correal doesn’t have much of a work history or pay stubs to show for it, other than some under-the-table work as a babysitter for a few years. It’s ironic that people who have in fact been working without a work permit are farther ahead in that respect, says Mancera.
“We knew it was going to be people like Lina Correal, stay-at-home moms or women doing childcare, who would have a harder time proving they were here all of these years. That’s one of the reasons we give them diplomas from Puente,” she explains, referring to the diplomas participants receive for ‘graduating’ from Puente ESL and other programs.
People sometimes assume that it’s an easy decision to leave one’s home country in search of a better life. If it wasn’t worth it, why bother? But Correal finds herself in tears when she stops to recall what it was like to leave her two children in their cribs – one-year-old Manuel and three-year-old Josefa – and cross the border to join Luis in Pescadero in 2000. She crossed with a group of 40 people by crawling under a wire in San Ysidro, near San Diego. To get there, they walked for two nights straight – trekking up steep, stony mountains and along deserted valleys, with border patrol cars in the near distance. During the day, they hid under a tree.
As she walked in the dark, her feet so sore she had to will them to continue, Correal thought only of her children. Luis had promised her that they would be sent for immediately, but it would be five years before she saw them again – her mother-in-law refused to let them go.
The most vivid moment – and the saddest – came when border patrol officers apprehended more than half the group. Correal and 13 others managed to flee and stay hidden while they listened to the others being detained and carted away. One of them was a father who kept shouting for his daughter, who had run away.
“He was saying, Rosita! Where are you?” she recalls. In this way, father and daughter were separated, perhaps forever.
That’s the kind of nightmare scenario that Correal and her husband are desperate to avoid. Today their children are 18, 16 and 14 – the youngest was born in Pescadero. They are well adjusted, happy and close with their parents. In fact, Josefa (the eldest daughter) is something of an academic star. She has an A+ in English, which is impressive considering she entered Pescadero Elementary in the third grade speaking only Spanish. She’s going to college next year, although she doesn’t yet have a driver’s license.
“We are the kind of overprotective parents that don’t let her have a driver’s license yet,” says Correal, laughing. “She can go to school on the bus.”
Josefa is one of 23 local youth, born outside the U.S., who have received work permits under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which preceded DAPA). She will be working at Puente this summer.
For now, Correal is taking the time to gather the documents that Puente has told her she needs – such as doctor’s records, school records, and her youngest daughter’s birth certificate. She will be saving her money, since Puente estimates that government filing fees will be around $465 per person to apply.
Puente will also charge a sliding scale fee for processing applications, as a requirement of its BIA agency status. Puente is soliciting donations to help keep those processing costs to a minimum. To donate, please contact Rita Mancera at (650) 879-1691 x102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correal knew she would apply for DAPA the instant she heard the announcement. It may not happen right away, but that’s all right – she can wait. Someday, she’ll be working retail, just as she imagined.
“I know it is an opportunity to be somebody in this country. Then you will not be afraid to look for a job. It doesn’t mean they will give it to you, but you won’t be afraid to look for it,” she says.