For three blissful days earlier this month, Raquel, a housekeeper living in Lynn, thought President Obama’s recent announcement on immigration — that illegal immigrants brought here as children would not face deportation and could apply for work permits — would solve all her problems.
Raquel was 4 when her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico; she has lived in America, undocumented, for more than a quarter-century.
But in the office of her immigration attorney, Jeffrey B. Rubin, Raquel’s hopes were dashed: She had turned 31 at the end of April. The presidential measure applies only to those under the age of 30 who came to this country when they were 16 or younger. She missed eligibility by less than two months.
“It gets me angry, because why didn’t he do this since the beginning [of his term]?” said Raquel, who asked to be identified by her middle name because she fears deportation. “I know that [Obama] is helping . . . but unfortunately, he has moved his game pieces too late for some of us.”
The president’s announcement earlier this month brought relief to hundreds of thousands of young people who immigrated illegally to the United States.
Many of these young people have already expressed an interest in signing up for the program, said Marjean Perhot, director of Refugee and Immigration Services at the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston. While the official process for applying for a work permit has not been completed by the Department of Homeland Security, Perhot’s organization has already begun advising young immigrants to gather documents to prove they have lived and attended school in the United States.
But the announcement was also a painful shock to others, like Raquel, who are excluded by a narrow margin — months, or even days — and believe that they fit most squarely in the population of people the federal government is looking to assist.
For these people, unlucky timing means that they will remain in limbo for the foreseeable future, fearful of deportation and frustrated by their inability to seek legal employment.
In Obama’s speech announcing the measure, the president spoke of young people who “were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.”
That includes Raquel, and others like her.
“It’s a great irony,” said Rachel Rosenbloom, an assistant professor of immigration law at Northeastern University School of Law. “These are some of the people who have some of the strongest claims to legal recognition in this country.”
The parameters of the measure, outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, are similar to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (known as the DREAM Act) that narrowly failed in Congress in 2010: Eligible men and women must have entered the United Stated before they turned 16, lived here for at least five years, cannot have a criminal record, and must have pursued a high school degree or service in the military.
But there is also one major difference: Under the most recent iteration of the DREAM Act, immigrants could not be over 35 years old. Under the federal deferred action policy, immigrants must be 30 or younger as of June 15.
Those parameters leave a gap of people who arrived in the United States too late to qualify for the 1986 amnesty introduced by President Ronald Reagan but who are too old under the current policy.
“Any partial step is going to draw the line somewhere,” said Rosenbloom.
Among those left in the lurch: Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who made headlines last year when he announced in a New York Times Magazine article that he had immigrated illegally to the United States from the Phillipines when he was 12 years old. Vargas turned 31 in February.
For Raquel, the disappointment was particularly biting.
After 27 years, she has no memories of Mexico. When she went to the Mexican embassy to renew her passport she said, officials questioned her Mexican citizenship because she speaks Spanish with an American accent. She works as a housekeeper and takes night classes. Her two daughters are US citizens.
Raquel thinks about where she would be now if Obama had pushed through the deferred action plan years ago.
But there is also a flip side of the eligibility constraints: Young people who arrived in the United States after they turned 16, too late to reap the benefits of the policy. They argue that while they may not have been a child when they arrived in American borders, they were still constrained by their parents’ decisions.
Vinicius Quirino, 26, came to the United States from Brazil just after he turned 17. When he first heard the announcement earlier this month, he said, he immediately felt joy for friends who would benefit from a work permit and a reprieve from the threat of deportation.
“I was so happy for them, that was the first thought that came to my mind, but when it came to me, it got me a little down,” Quirino said. “I was on both sides of the coin — I was happy and a little sad.”
The DREAM Act and the new Department of Homeland Security policy apply to people who arrived before the age of 16, to focus on those who had no say in their immigration. At 16, some could argue that children are old enough to enter US borders unaccompanied, said David K. McHaffey, an immigration attorney who lectures at the Boston University School of Law.
“The question is, what is the age of culpability?” McHaffey said. “A younger child has less volition. When they are older, are they really coming as a child with their family?”
Emily, 25, who asked that only her middle name be used in this article, came to the United States on July 9, 2002 — nine days after her 16th birthday.
“When I realized I didn’t qualify, I felt like I wanted to cry,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why me?’ What did I do to not deserve this? What’s wrong with my story? Isn’t it worth listening to?”
She dismisses the argument that arriving in the United States after the age of 16 means she had a choice in her immigration. Her mother brought her for a monthlong visit from Brazil to visit her sister, who had a green card to work in the United States; at the end of the month, her mother informed Emily that she would be staying with her sister. Emily wanted to leave, using all her spare cash to buy phone cards to call her mother and beg for a plane ticket back to Brazil.
But America grew on her. She met someone, also an immigrant. She got married and had an American daughter. Now, she wants to buy a house.
“Now I’m part of this country,” Emily said. ““The law says I’m not, but I’m an American, too.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story, and a caption with an accompanying photo, may have given the impression that Vinicius Quirino, who emigrated from Brazil when he was 17, is at risk of deportation, and could have been spared that risk if he had qualified for President Obama’s recent deferred action policy. He is not at risk of deportation, but qualifying for the new policy would have helped him obtain a work permit in the United States.