Dream On

Gov. Jan Brewer tells young immigrants to take a hike—literally

Karla Guerrero will no doubt make a fine nurse someday—if she can ever make it to work.

Guerrero's parents brought her to this country without immigration papers as an infant. And in the 25 years that have followed, she's never been able to legally hold a job—until June, that is, when the Obama administration outflanked anti-immigration Republicans by announcing that young people like her could apply for renewable, two-year residency and employment permits.

Beginning in August, the administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program finally provided breathing room for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children. It also offered hope for Guerrero, who recently completed her studies at Pima Community College to become a registered nurse, but had been barred from working in her field.

This being Arizona, however, Gov. Jan Brewer quickly announced that not only would these so-called "DREAMers"—named for DREAM Act legislation that has yet to pass Congress—be denied public benefits, but they'd also remain prohibited from obtaining driver's licenses.

Yet there's a catch here: Arizona Department of Transportation policy states that licenses are available to anyone bearing a federal employment authorization document—such as the one provided through the president's new Deferred Action program.

In response, ADOT quickly cobbled together this addendum: "An Employment Authorization Document resulting from a Deferred Action Childhood Arrival is not acceptable."

Asked about their freshly minted caveat, ADOT's PR folks sent me a statement. Numerous federal agencies, it read, "have determined that individuals who receive Deferred Action are not considered to be lawfully present or have any legal status. This conclusion is consistent with the Governor's Executive Order ..."

So DREAMers will have work permits, temporary residency and even Social Security cards. But in the governor's alternate reality, they still won't have legal status.

It's hardly surprising that critics not only see Gov. Brewer's latest move as purely spiteful—given her public disdain for President Obama—but also as a sop to her far-right, anti-immigration fan club.

Regardless, legal watchers expect the governor's executive order to ultimately tumble in court. "It violates the plain language of the law," says Phoenix immigration attorney Regina Jefferies. "The law is very clear, and it's very clear that her executive order violates that plain language."

The Deferred Action program, she says, obviously gives people like Guerrero a lawful presence in the United States.

But according to Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson, the governor believes her order to be completely legal and fully justified. Deferred Action recipients "don't have lawful presence," he says. "Basically, the federal government has deferred prosecution of them. But they have not been granted any legal status or presence here in the country. ... It does not give them access to public benefits or driver's licenses."

This cynicism exacts a price from people like Leslie Barraza, who was brought to the U.S. as a toddler and nearly became homeless when her mother was deported. Barraza's deferred-action application has been approved, meaning she was able to land seasonal work at HoneyBaked Ham on Tucson's eastside.

But getting to that job will now be a hassle for the 18-year-old, who wants to save money for graphic-design school. "I'll either buy a bike if I have to go somewhere close," she says, "or if I have to visit my sister, I'll go on the bus."

It does not appear that Brewer will soften her position, nor offer any of her own ideas for helping these DREAMers, thought to number roughly 1.4 million across the country. "Going forward, the governor believes that securing the border is the first step that needs to be accomplished," Benson says. "And once that's done, then we can address the issue of individuals brought here as children, and all the other individuals who have come to this country—who have lived here for who knows how many years—just working and staying out of trouble and trying to support their families. There's going to be a solution there to those issues. But you really have to secure the border, first and foremost."

Exactly what the withholding of driving privileges has to do with securing the border remains a tad murky. Then comes the question of when, exactly, conservatives such as the governor will deem America's southern boundary sufficiently impermeable. Not soon, it seems, since citing the supposedly "insecure border" has become a favored escape route for right-wingers faced with tough immigration questions.

Regardless, the facts suggest that our border already is secure. According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in fiscal year 2010, the Department of Homeland Security spent roughly $3 billion on security efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. Over that time, the Border Patrol attained full operational control for 873 miles of the 2,000-mile Southwest border.

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates are watching Deferred Action closely, gauging it against the snail's-pace progress of a similar federal program called Prosecutorial Discretion. Initiated in 2011, that measure allows some undocumented immigrants to have their deportation cases administratively closed—meaning U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will no longer be actively trying to boot them from the country.

The idea was to instead focus resources on criminal immigrants. But several months into the program, only a fraction of the roughly 300,000 deportation cases under review had been closed.

Activists and the legal community are now waiting to see if Deferred Action fares any better. "We haven't had any problems yet," says Doralina Skidmore, an immigration attorney who represented Leslie Barraza with her application. "That isn't to say it's going to be a smooth ride. We think there was a strong push to do several approvals at the beginning, and now it's going to slow down a little bit."

Another possible reason for that opening burst, Skidmore says, is that federal officials "expected way more applications than they got. There's still a lot of fear, a lot of mistrust of the government. People are still concerned that if they get denied, they are going to be deported, or ICE is going to come knocking on their door."

That's not surprising, given the continuing rancor from conservative leaders such as Gov. Brewer. And all for a payoff that can seem meager, even for those who do step forward.

"To tell you the truth, it is like a huge load off of your back," says Karla Guerrero. "But at the same time, it's just a little work permit. I'm thankful. But I've been here my whole life, and I kind of deserve more than that."

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