(Vivian Johnson/ for The Columbian )
Two weeks ago, Juan got a text from his father while sitting in a Vancouver classroom. The news was big — big enough to potentially change the young man's life.
The Department of Homeland Security had just announced that certain young immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally could soon apply for what's called "deferred action," which means that for two years they would not be subject to deportation and would be eligible for a work permit.
Juan looked at the requirements later that day and found that he met all of them. But he told himself not to get excited yet, as the new program wouldn't be in place for a couple of months and many details remained to be worked out.
He's one of many Clark County residents whose lives may be greatly affected by the federal announcement. (Because of their precarious legal status, The Columbian is only using the first names of immigrants mentioned in this story).
'My dark secret'
Juan and his parents came to Clark County from Mexico City when he was 5. Juan is 17 now and will be a senior in a Vancouver high school this fall. His grades are close to straight-As and his teachers tell him he can go far, Juan said.
"They don't know my dark secret," he said.
The teen enjoys writing and has worked on video productions at school. He's thinking about becoming a journalist. Most of his friends were born and raised in Vancouver, he said.
"I've lived my life like I'm from here," Juan said.
But when he started looking at colleges this year and saw the space for a Social Security number on their registration forms, the reality hit him that he faces obstacles for not being a legal resident, he said. That doesn't keep him from going to school in this state, but it makes it tougher.
Washington colleges and universities have an open-access policy, said Felisciana Peralta, the multicultural retention manager at Clark College. Nobody is denied an education.
And since the 2003 passage of House Bill 1079, undocumented students who have lived in the state for three continuous years before receiving their high school diplomas are charged in-state tuition, which is thousands of dollars lower than tuition charged to students from out-of-state.
But students who can't prove legal residency are not eligible for federal financial aid or federal grants, Peralta said.
As of right now, undocumented students who are granted deferred action won't be eligible for federal aid either, according to information from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. But that may change as the details of the new program are worked out, said the project's director, Jorge Barón.
At the very least, students could pay for their studies with legal work under the new program.
"Being able to apply for a job -- I'll definitely be going to college," Juan said. "With this in place I can't say no."
Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, outlined the rules for the new program in a memo to the heads of the nation's immigration and border patrol agencies on June 15.
Resources would no longer be spent on low-priority cases, which in this case meant undocumented immigrants who came "to this country as children and know only this country as home," Napolitano wrote.
Those immigrants who fit that description and meet a number of other criteria would not be removed from the country.
To qualify for deferred action, immigrants must:
• Have come to the U.S. before they were 16;
• Have continuously lived in the U.S. for at least five years;
• Be currently in school, have graduated from high school or be a honorably discharged veteran;
• Not have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or multiple nonsignificant misdemeanors;
• Be 15-30 years old.
Those who can demonstrate with documents that they meet these criteria are safe from deportation for two years, after which they can apply for deferral again. The deferred status also allows them to apply for a two-year work permit, which is renewable, too.
This process does not provide immigrants with a permanent resident card, also called a "green card," or with a path to citizenship. The new rules apply to immigrants who are currently in deportation proceedings and to those who aren't on the radar of immigration officials.
The new rules will benefit about 1.4 million people in the U.S., including about 20,000-30,000 in Washington, according to an estimate from the Migration Policy Institute.
A big deal
Maritza's parents brought her to Vancouver from Mexico City when she was 8. Now 22, Maritza remembers some places there and she remembers taking trips to the city of Oaxaca. But she said she doesn't know anyone back there anymore.
Maritza graduated from high school in Vancouver and went to a beauty school. She works as a hair stylist and has a young son. She loves her job.
"I'm just a normal person," Maritza said. "Everyone deserves a chance."
To advance further in her profession, she would have to travel to other states for training, which she is afraid to do right now, she said. She doesn't want to get pulled over someplace where police might check her immigration status. When she heard about the new program, she got "really excited," Maritza said.
"It's a new opportunity," she said. "I'm looking forward to having a good life with no fear. This is the biggest deal of my life."
Luis moved to Vancouver when he was 1. He's never been back to Guadalajara, Mexico, and definitely wants to stay here, he said. He plans on becoming a physical therapist, a profession he came in touch with after blowing out his knee while on the high school soccer team.
"It's been hard thinking about going to college, but I was going to try," Luis, 16, said.
Luis never talks about his legal status with his friends.
"I keep it private," he said.
Luis has good grades in school. He has lived here pretty much his entire life and wants to keep it that way.
"I want to study here," he said. "I want to stay here. I want to live here."
He's already getting his documentation together, collecting transcripts and ID cards that show how long he's been here and how well he's done in school.
"I'm getting ready," Luis said with big smile.
And that's the best, and only, thing people like Luis can do right now, experts say.
Scams and seminars
"The most important thing for anybody not in removal proceedings is to do nothing right now," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
By "nothing," she means not send in anything to immigration authorities. They're not ready yet. The agencies have told immigration lawyer groups to pass on the message that nobody should apply yet, said Barón, of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
But if you do plan on applying for deferral and you are not currently in removal proceedings, now is the time to gather up school records, birth certificate and utility bills that show residency in the U.S. at various times, Williams said.
Those who are on the verge of being deported, however, do need to take immediate action. It's best to get an attorney in that case, but information is also available by calling Citizenship and Immigration Services at 888-351-4024, Williams said.
The Northwest group will put on seminars to help immigrants navigate the deferral process. Dates are not set, but anyone interested can go to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to sign up for email notifications, or call 800-445-5771.
Scam artists are likely ready to take money from immigrants desperate for help, the immigration lawyers said.
"Watch out for people who are advertising that they can file for you right now," Williams said.
People who claim they can fill out the forms for immigrants who aren't in removal proceedings right now are either trying to cheat applicants out of money or are terribly ill-informed, Barón said.
No forms are expected to be available until mid-August.
A lot of people are expected to apply for deferral right away. The phone already has been ringing steadily at Lutheran Community Services in Vancouver, which provides services to low-income people, said Maria Santos-Pinacho, an immigration program assistant for LCS.
"There's been a lot of interest since that first day (of the announcement)," Santos-Pinacho said.
Some of that urgency may be a result of the upcoming presidential election. The new program is not a statute, Barón said. It's just how federal officials have interpreted the rules under President Barack Obama's direction.
If Obama loses the November election, it is unclear if the program would be sustained under a Republican administration.
Any designations already granted before the inauguration would likely stay in place, Barón said.
"But (a new administration) could take it away for those going forward," he said.