Undocumented youth await election with fear and hope

In June, Obama announced that he would grant work permits to certain young undocumented immigrants. These people -- many of whom have grown up in the US -- cannot vote, but are watching the election anxiously. reports from Miami.


In many ways, Monica Lazaro was a model American teenager.

A star student at her Miami high school, Lazaro also ran on the track team, served as student council president, and was crowned prom queen in her senior year.

But as typical as her adolescence looked from the outside, one thing set Lazaro apart from her classmates: she was an undocumented immigrant.

Monica Lazaro with her boyfriend
Monica Lazaro with her boyfriend

After leaving Honduras with her family at age 9 for what her businessman father said would be a trip to Disneyworld, Lazaro quickly realised she wasn’t on vacation. Soon, she was living in a tiny apartment with her parents and younger brother (quite a change, she said, from the comfortable house in her country of birth), going to a local public school (she picked up English quickly), and keeping her secret (which became trickier when she couldn’t get a driver’s licence like her friends, because she needed to show proof of legal residency).

Now a 19-year-old biology student at Miami Dade College, Lazaro says that aside from those admittedly unusual circumstances, she grew up a regular Florida teenager. “By the time I was in high school, I was part of America,” she said during a study break on campus. “I had spent my essential years here, and I no longer felt foreign.”

Lazaro is what politicians and immigration officials call a DREAMer -- named after the DREAM Act (an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a piece of legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for young people brought illegally to the US as children.

These days, she finds herself in the odd position of witnessing a presidential election that may directly impact her future, and not being able to vote for the candidate she supports: Obama.

With Obama, ‘on safe ground’

After the DREAM Act failed to get through a divided Congress, Obama announced on June 15 that he was allowing those whom the law would have helped to apply for 2-year, renewable work permits and driver’s licenses. The decision, hailed by many activists and political analysts as a major development in immigration policy, has enabled nearly 1.7 million people like Lazaro to emerge from the shadows.

“It was a huge deal,” said Audrey Singer, a specialist in US immigration policy at think tank The Brookings Institution. “Of course, it’s significant because it’s an election year. But it’s also significant in people’s lives. These individuals can move forward with the hope that this ‘deferred action’ programme turns into something more permanent, like the DREAM Act.”

As of mid-October, 179,794 immigrants had applied to Obama’s “deferred action” programme, according to official figures. Only 4,591 of those applications have been approved, mostly because of time-consuming background checks, experts say.

To be eligible for the programme, immigrants must be under 31, have come to the US before they were 16, and have lived here for at least five years. They must also be current students or high school graduates.

“My mom died this summer, after Obama made the announcement,” said Lazaro, who will find out in three weeks whether her application was accepted. “I was so happy I could tell her that it wasn’t all in vain, that everything she and my dad did will hopefully pay off.”

As election day approaches, Lazaro is keeping her fingers crossed for the president. She says she is wary of Mitt Romney’s stances on immigration. The candidate has promised he would respect reprieves already granted by the government, but also that he would end the “deferred action” programme, unpopular among Republicans who allege it amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

According to Audrey Singer, the stakes of this election are indeed high for “DREAMers”.

“As long as Obama is in office, they’re on safe ground. He’s talking about passing something like the DREAM Act if re-elected,” the analyst said. “Romney’s position hasn’t been as clear, so a lot of DREAMers are sceptical.”

Lazaro is optimistic about her chances of being approved, and is now pondering her future. “I’ll stay in America, but not in Florida,” said the aspiring forensics scientist, who noted that she did not have the legal documents needed to receive federal financial aid, and was therefore unable to apply to more prestigious – and expensive – universities out of state. “I can’t wait to experience new weather, new people, new food. Maybe Wisconsin or Massachusetts.”

‘As American as anyone else’

Other “DREAMers” have had even more turbulent journeys. 25-year-old Shamir Ali, a car dealership employee and computer science student, came to Palm Beach, Florida from Bangladesh at age 8, accompanied by his single mother.

“If a woman doesn’t have a husband in Bangladesh, it’s like she doesn’t exist,” Ali recounted. “There was torturing of women going on there, too.”

Shamir Ali
Shamir Ali

In 2002, US authorities denied the request for political asylum that Ali’s mother had filed. And when she was caught driving without a license seven years later, she was deported.

Ali stayed in Florida by himself, but following a police raid on his former work place he was detained for not having proper documentation and handed an order of deportation.

Thanks to what he says were tireless efforts by immigration lawyers and an organisation called SWEAR (Students Working For Equal Rights), Ali was released and granted a short-term work permit. He is now waiting to hear if his application for Obama’s “deferred action” programme is accepted.

“I don’t know how to read or write the Bangladeshi language, and I barely speak it. I would not be able to survive there,” he said. “I’m 100% assimilated. I grew up with the same TV shows, music, and culture as all my friends from Palm Beach. I love this country, and am as American as anyone else.”

Ali is currently not allowed to leave Florida, and his mother is barred from the US for ten years. “I talk to her by phone every two weeks,” he said. “She cries a lot, and that breaks my heart. But I have to stay here; this is where my life is.”

Ali says that though he has some “conservative economic views”, he is rooting for Obama from the sidelines. “He gave us hope with the ‘deferred action’ programme, when a lot of us were dangling,” Ali affirmed, adding: “We’re still waiting for a permanent solution like the DREAM Act. If Romney wins, I’m worried we’ll never get it.”

‘No longer ashamed’

That worry is shared by Lisa and Stephanie (names changed upon their request), sisters born into an upper-middle class Venezuelan family that moved to Florida after Chavez’s attempted coup in 1992.

Lisa and Stephanie, who did not want to have their faces revealed.
Lisa and Stephanie, who did not want to have their faces revealed.

Told by their father to “take only what’s necessary”, Lisa and Stephanie, then 10- and 6-years-old respectively, left their big house and prestigious French school in Caracas for a cramped Miami apartment in which they shared a bed with their parents.

While their parents opened up a flower stand that put food on the table, Lisa and Stephanie kept a low profile. “I tried to be like any American kid. I got good grades, I made friends,” Lisa, now 30, recalled. “Things started to feel normal to me. But my sister and I were holding in this big secret. It was incredibly stressful.”

Lisa was able to get a scholarship to the highly competitive Florida International University on the condition that she would send in proof of legal residency as soon as possible. She never submitted the papers (which she didn’t have), but managed to keep the scholarship for all four years of college.

According to Audrey Singer, undocumented young people flying under the authorities’ radar is fairly common. “Most of them go about their business without being noticed by the government,” she explained. “A lot of public and private universities don’t check the legal status of students. And they get work under the table.”

Lisa has had a job at the same Miami public relations firm for several years, but at an hourly wage; if she were to sign a full-time contract with a yearly salary, she explained, she would have to show documentation.

Another inconvenience is that she has not been able to renew her driver’s licence, since post-9/11 regulations require that Floridians submit proof of legal residency to do so.

While Stephanie is married to her high school sweetheart (out of love, not convenience, she says), and is therefore waiting for her green card, Lisa has applied for Obama’s “deferred action” programme. She expects a decision in the coming weeks.

Lisa and Stephanie are both anxiously watching the presidential campaign -- and wishing they could vote. “I would love to vote for Obama. He gave me a life,” Lisa said. “I no longer feel ashamed. I feel like a real citizen. If he’s elected, I hope he keeps his word and finds a permanent solution for me and other DREAMers.”

For now, Lisa is fantasising about getting a residency card -- and then getting out of Florida (she hasn’t left the state since 2001). “There are so many places I want to live, including Paris,” she said with enthusiasm, pointing out that her primary school education was in French.

“But ultimately, I’ll probably come back to the States,” she added more reflectively. "I feel very American. This is home now.”

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