Cynthia Tejeda was both nervous and hopeful as she waited in a long line at the Mexican Consulate Office in Los Angeles last week to speak with an immigration attorney.
Originally from Cuernavaca, Morelos Mexico, Tejeda was brought to the U.S. illegally by her parents when she was just 9-years-old, which could mean she is eligible for a reprieve from deportation through a special program that allows undocumented immigrants like her to stay in the country, at least temporarily.
In 2012, President Obama issued an executive order creating the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival or DACA program that allows undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria to remain in the country without fear of deportation for two years, subject to renewal, and to receive a work permit. Among the requirements, the applicant must have entered the U.S. before his or her 16th birthday, and was under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, the date the order was signed.
Tejeda, 27, told EGP she at first felt “helpless and sad” because she did not have the money to apply for DACA. The single mother said all the money she earns as a waitress goes to support her three children, ages 9, 2 and 1.
Tejeda is one of the approximately 1.6 million undocumented individuals immigration officials believe are eligible to receive deferred action status. However, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data, fewer than half of those who may qualify have applied.
Last week, the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles opened its doors to would-be applicants to help them with the process. Seventeen immigration attorneys provided free assistance, which at times included sifting through stacks of paperwork only to discover that key records were missing or incomplete.
Carlos M. Sada, Mexican Consul General in Los Angeles, told EGP that a lack of information, fear of deportation and insufficient “economic resources” has kept many from applying. Some worry filing the application will lead immigration officials right to them and they will be deported if their application is denied.
In addition to the age requirements, applicants must provide proof that they have been in the country continuously since 2007 and in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, the day the executive order was signed; are in high school, have graduated or earned a GED certificate; have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors or pose a criminal threat to the country; or have been honorably discharged from the military.
Knowing what documents are required or considered acceptable for proving eligibility is crucial to completing the process successfully, say attorneys.
So is having the money to pay the application fee.
After nearly two years of saving, Tejeda finally has the $465 she needs to file her application. She is hopeful that she will soon have a work permit, social security number and a driver’s license as a result.
“I can really see a before and after with these documents,” Tejeda told EGP, referring to the possibility that after 19 year of being undocumented, she may no longer have to be afraid.
“I can finally study … provide a better life for my children,” she said, her eyes filling with tears as her emotions start to get the better of her.
But it’s possible that Tejeda was eligible for financial assistance that would have allowed her to apply much earlier.
Sada said the Mexican Consulate offers “up to $1,000” to help undocumented Mexicans pay attorney and USCIS fees, if they have no other resources.
“It is an effort that we are trying”… “for as long as we have available resources,” Sada told EGP. “In the past two years, 2012 and 2013, we allocated $250,000” to support cases where “the young one can’t afford the expense,” Sada explained.
Mexico’s Departamento de Protección (Department of Protection) told EGP via email that the
Mexican consulate has so far helped 261 Mexican students pay their fees. They are currently working with six nonprofit organizations in Mexico to raise money to help more students.
Applicants must provide proof for every year they claim to have been in the country. Each year that goes by means more documentation that must accompany the application. Many times applications are denied or delayed because the applicant did not provide “sufficient evidence of continuous presence” in the country, immigration Attorney Nora E. Phillips told EGP last week while assisting applicants at the Consulate’s workshop.
“You have to prove you have been in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 until the present, including June 15, 2012,” Phillips said. The more time that passes, the more difficult the process becomes, she said.
“A lot of them [DACA applicants] came with a lot of documents and a lot of them came with nothing,” she said. We start the application for those with the information required, but for those who do not have what they need, “we do a quick screening and refer them to attorneys at nonprofit organizations” for follow-up help, she said.
According to USCIS’ latest numbers, as of Feb. 6 of this year, 521,815 applications have been approved. Of those, 403,302 were immigrants from Mexico, followed by 19,089 Salvadorians, 12,339 Hondurans and 12,410 Guatemalans.
According to the USCIS website, any individual who meets the DACA requirements is eligible for deferred status even if they are “in removal proceedings with a final order or with a voluntary departure order, as long as they are not [already] in immigration detention.”
USCIS also states that it is very unlikely individuals who apply but are not granted deferred action will be deported. “If your case does not involve a criminal offense, fraud, or a threat to national security or public safety, your case will not be referred to ICE for removal proceedings,” according to USCIS.
For more information about the DACA process, visit www.uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals. Mexican citizens interested in applying for financial assistance from the Mexican Consulate can call (213) 351-6825.