Hundreds of young illegal immigrants crowded a Roman Catholic Church basement on Manhattan's Lower East Side Wednesday to apply for President Barack Obama's deferred action program, which will shield them from deportation and provide a two-year work permit. Today is the first day applications are being accepted.
Some showed up at 6 a.m. to make sure they got a spot at the pro-bono legal clinic organized by a coalition of immigrant rights groups. It opened at noon, and by 12:45 at least a hundred people waited their turn outside, even when it began to pour down rain.
Cheerful volunteers sat down with applicants one-on-one to ask how old they were when they entered the country, if they've graduated from high school and whether they've had any run-ins with the law. Those who entered at 15 years old or younger, graduated from or are enrolled in high school and have never committed any serious crimes were given the OK to fill out the forms and pay the $465 application fee to the government.
"Once the door is open, it's not going to close," said New York City Councilman Robert Jackson at a celebratory press conference in the church. "This is what America's about," added Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Local politicians praised Obama for enacting the plan. Some national Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have criticized the move as an overreach that circumvents Congress and have accused Obama of enacting the program to cater to Latino voters in an election year.
As many as 1.7 million young people between the ages of 5 and 30 may qualify for the program, 110,000 of them in New York state. Though about 85 percent of those eligible are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the applicants at St. Mary's Church hailed from all over the world. On one table, a passport from the United Kingdom and one from Pakistan lay side by side.
The owner of the U.K. passport, a 20-year-old woman who asked Yahoo News not to use her name since she hasn't received deferred status, said she came to America with her mother and sister when she was 9. She graduated from high school, but hasn't been able to go to college because she can't afford it without financial aid, for which she is ineligible. Her former high school guidance counselor let her know about the deferred action program and encouraged her to apply; she hopes to major in business administration.
"I think [the program] makes sense because so many young children, they come and it's not our decision to come, and I feel that now we're here and we stayed here so long, we shouldn't have to struggle for a decision our parents made," she said. "We should be allowed to have the same rights as other children. We all went to school together, so it's not fair that they get to go on and pursue things and we just get left behind."
Arma, a 22-year-old woman from Brooklyn who arrived in America from Pakistan when she was 14, says the deferred status may help her achieve her dream of becoming a commercial pilot. "It really feels good that I can [continue] my college and ... work properly," she said. Arma says now that she will be able to work, she can afford to take more classes at Vaughn College in Flushing, where she's a part-time sophomore. She hopes to now attend classes full-time.
Twenty-eight year old James from St. Vincent, a small Caribbean island, clutched an umbrella outside the church. James said he hasn't been able to work since he overstayed his visa when he was 11. He's taking a test to become a certified substance abuse counselor and is excited about being able to apply for jobs if he passes. "It's been a horrible experience. You have to live in fear," said James' 21-year-old sister, who came along to support her brother (she declined to give her name). She recently became a legal permanent resident through her aunt, who is a citizen and sponsored her. "I don't have to worry about my brother anymore," she said.