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Immigrant youth prepare for chance to achieve legal status

A forum on deferred action applications led by the Student Immigrant Movement in Lawrence drew a crowd on a recent weeknight.Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

LAWRENCE — Standing at the front of a crowded community room, Nataly Castaño asked everyone to raise their hands.

Then she played an elimination game.

Anyone wearing a green shirt, she instructed: Drop your hands.

Have glasses? Sandals? Long hair? Hands down.

She continued until just one arm remained raised: that of a man wearing a baseball cap.

Turn around and look at him, she urged the group. And everyone in the room did; he laughed nervously, shifting in his seat.

“He was the only one with a hat here. The only reason he was different is because I pointed him out,” Castaño, an organizer for the Student Immigrant Movement, told the group of about 40 assembled at Lawrence CommunityWorks Inc. on a recent weeknight. “That’s what’s happening in the immigrant community right now.”


But the crowd — mostly young, undocumented immigrants, predominantly from Spanish-speaking countries, but also from Africa and Asia, intermingled with immigration lawyers and local business leaders — had gathered to discuss a measure of hope against such scrutiny: President Obama’s new deferred action program.

The event was one of several summits being hosted around the state by the Boston-based Student Immigrant Movement to inform people about the new plan, which defers deportation for qualifying illegal immigrants for two years.

“I was very excited when I heard about it,” said Gladys Gitau, 18, a Lawrence High School graduate involved with the movement who came to the United States from Kenya at age 7 on a visa that has since expired. “I grew up just like any other American kid. You would not have known I was undocumented.”

“Jonathan’’ had a question about the new immigrant policy at the Lawrence forum.Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

Under the program — which opened to enrollment on Wednesday — qualifying applicants must be 30 or under; have been under 16 when they initially came to the United States; have been in the country for five consecutive years prior to June 15, 2012, the day Obama announced the program (and been in the country on that date); be a high school graduate or have earned a General Educational Development certificate; be currently attending high school, or be honorably discharged from a branch of the US military; and cannot have been convicted of a felony, a major misdemeanor, or more than two minor misdemeanors.


As Cambodian-born Nalyn Yim explained at the Lawrence CommunityWorks presentation, the process will be intensive, costly — application fees will be $465 — and lengthy, with approval taking three months to a year.

“That time period is something we all just have to be patient with, really,” she told the crowd seated before her, taking notes on scraps of paper or typing them into smartphones, and frequently asking questions in English and Spanish.

Gladys Martinez is a member of the Student Immigrant Movement. Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

As the policy went into effect last week, it appeared likely that immigrants will be able to apply for a driver’s license in Massachusetts and many other states. But it was still an open question whether the policy change would lead to access to resident tuition at public colleges and universities.

Both driver’s licenses and in-state tuition rates are a key goal of immigration advocates.

In a presentation that lasted more than two hours — translated into Spanish by Mexican native Gladys Martinez, 20 —  Yim went over the program’s processes and procedures, and urged everyone to “rally up paperwork as soon as possible.”

That includes documents to prove their presence in the United States when they were under age 16 — such as school transcripts or medical records — as well as one document or record proving a presence in the country for every year since 2007; two documents dated just before and just after June 15, 2012; and birth certificates and valid passports.


“The burden of proof is on you,” she said. “It’s your job to find all this information.”

Also, she stressed, those who hadn’t graduated from high school should “go get their GED as soon as possible,” and those with more complicated situations should immediately contact an immigration lawyer.

Ultimately, through deferred action, “immigration status no longer becomes a barrier,” she said.

It’s estimated that the program will help close to 2 million young people who came to the country illegally, grew up here, and consider it their home, yet don’t have other avenues to permanent residence or citizenship.Per the US naturalization process, immigrants who are at least 18 and fall into certain categories — those who are married to an American citizen, have lived in the country continuously for five years, or have served in the military, among other scenarios — can apply to become a citizen, but only if they have been granted a permanent resident card, or a green card, according to a guidebook from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Green cards are granted through family connections, or through a job, to refugees and those granted asylum, or for other special circumstances (such as being born to a foreign diplomat in the United States), according to the USCIS book.


Nalyn Yim helped lead a community informational forum. Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

Gitau, the Kenyan native, has had better luck in her path to higher education: She will be attending Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., this fall,  through a scholarship from the school. Still, when it came time to apply for college, she ran into roadblocks, became depressed, “gave up in school” for a while, and “felt insufficient.”

“I worked very hard to be at the top of my class,” said Gitau, who graduated third in her class at Lawrence High.

She has since gained her resolve, and plans to study urban development; she says she’s “passionate” about her home city, where she has been deeply involved in the community, and started a paper called “What’s Good in the Hood.” (whatsgoodinthehood.tumblr.com).

After getting her degree, she plans to “give back to the city, or cities similar to it.”

That dedication and spirit is precisely what Castaño and others hope to tap in their fight for immigrant rights.

“If there was a way, we would have definitely tried,” said Mariel Cabrera, 18. The Lawrence resident, who is also involved with the Student Immigrant Movement, came to the country from the Dominican Republic at age 10, and lamented that her parents “didn’t realize the consequences of bringing me here undocumented.”

As a result, the incoming Lawrence High School senior noted, “I don’t have the same chances as everyone else here.”

As she has watched friends begin to prepare for college and attend summer education programs, she has felt “different” and sometimes even “nonhuman.”

“I feel like there’s no road for me to get to college,” she said, noting a goal to become a physics professor (or, as a fallback, a tae kwon do instructor).

“We need to really get together,” said Castaño, calling deferred action a “step in the right direction, but not enough.”

“We need to come out and say we’re human,” she said.

Cabrera agreed. “We’re fighting for our human rights. We need all the support we can get.”

For more on the Student Immigrant Movement or deferred action, visit simforus.com.
Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.