Maria “Mari” Barrera was 6 when she and her family came to the United States in 1997.
A decade later, she discovered she was not a U.S. citizen. The discovery sent ripples through her life: She would not be able to get a part-time job, like her friends. Without a Social Security number, she would not qualify for federal financial aid for college.
“It’s been really difficult,” said Barrera, now a 21-year-old student at Green River Community College in Auburn. “It’s been a struggle. But hopefully this will make things easier.”
Barrera applied for temporary status after President Barack Obama announced an initiative to help some young illegal immigrants defer deportation. If approved, she could qualify for a driver’s license and a Social Security number.
More than 53,000 people have been approved nationwide for a two-year deferral from deportation, according to federal data released Friday.
More than 300,000 requests for deferral have been received since August, and about two-thirds of those requests came from applicants who identified Mexico as their country of origin, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
This initiative offers a renewable two-year deferral from deportation to undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31, if they can provide documentation that they came to the U.S. before age 16 and meet a number of other requirements, said a federal Department of Homeland Security representative. The approval process takes an estimated four to six months.
More than 27,000 young immigrants in Washington state could benefit from the program, according to the Immigration Policy Center, an immigrant-rights and policy group in Washington. Of that numbers, two-thirds of them are eligible now, while the rest will be once they reach age 15, according to the center.
Before applying, Barrera attended a workshop on this initiative put on by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit that helps immigrants in pursuing their rights and securing legal status.
The workshops provide information to the public about the requirements and risks associated with applying for the program, said Zaida Rivera, an attorney who works at the project. They regularly organize public workshops across Washington.
The majority of the issues that come up in regard to eligibility requirements are criminal and immigration issues, Rivera said.
“That’s why we advise people to attend one of our workshops or talk to an attorney about those issues, because if they’re ineligible and they still apply, they run the risk of possibly being placed in removal proceedings,” she said.
Some potential applicants worry about what the government might do with their information once they submit the applications, said Jerry Talbott, a Yakima attorney specializing in immigration law. Some fear that the process could lead to deportation if they do not qualify, but Talbott said that’s not likely to happen.
“There’s thousands and thousands of them that are really sharp, nice young people,” he said. “They’re not going to send them all out. The idea that somebody would try to deport thousands or more people is just not going to happen.”
Talbot said his law firm has helped about 50 clients and that none of the submitted applications that have been declined.
Barrera said she first realized she did not have legal status when she was in high school. Like her peers, she wanted a part-time job. Due to her lack of status and Social Security number, this was impossible. Since then, Barrera has taken side jobs that paid her by cash or check in order to pay her bills, she said.
After high school, Barrera said, she attended the University of Washington for one quarter before taking a year off to work as a nanny. During that time, she saved money to finance her way through Green River.
Barrera submitted her application and met with officials this fall. She said she hopes to hear whether she qualified soon.
“That is the last step on my part; now they just have to review my application and run a background check,” she said.The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.