In most every aspect of her life, Emelia is a normal 17-year-old enjoying her senior year in high school. But every so often, she's reminded how different she is from a lot of her peers.
"When we discuss immigration issues in civics class, everybody in the class automatically looks at me and that makes me feel uncomfortable," she said. "I can't just sign up for a class trip if it's going too far away. Kids who were born here don't understand that."
For thousands of young immigrants in Arkansas, the story is much the same. Like Emelia (not her real name), they were brought to the United States as children. In the years since, many distinguished themselves through academic achievement and involvement in their churches and communities. However, their citizenship status deprived them of driver's licenses and other pieces of documentation necessary to get a job or take advantage of in-state college tuition. All while living under the constant threat of deportation.
Now, young immigrants have been given what many see as a first step toward attaining the American Dream. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, provides a means for people age 15 to 30 to get a two-year reprieve from deportation and the chance to work or attend school legally. Emelia, a student with a 3.9 grade point average and an eye on college, was one of hundreds in Arkansans who jumped at the chance to apply after the measure was announced June 15.
"I was really excited when I heard about it," she said. "I used to think I would not be able to accomplish what I wanted in life because of some papers, but now I can."
While DACA is open to young immigrants from any originating country, the vast majority of the estimated 4,470 people currently eligible for the program in Arkansas are Hispanic. Maricella Garcia, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services' Little Rock office, said her phone started ringing shortly after the measure was announced.
"The vast majority of the people we are helping want to go to school," Garcia said. "I have one applicant who wants to be a neurosurgeon who has maintained a 4.0 going all the way back to elementary school. These people want to give back and contribute to this country."
Cecelia Riveros, 26, is a textbook example. Brought here from Argentina at age 15, she spends her time like a lot in her age group, picking up and dropping off her young children as she heads to and from work as an office manager. Some of the people she interacts with know of her undocumented status and of those who don't there's always a fear of rejection. She immediately saw the opportunities DACA could open to her and with the help of Catholic Charities, she applied.
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Proponents of the measure say it provides a means for a generation of bright, law-abiding young people to realize their full potential legitimately through educational and employment opportunities. In so doing, they improve their communities and make a positive contribution on society as a whole.
"This measure benefits a segment of the population, namely students, who were brought here as kids through no action of their own," said Frank Head Jr., director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services' Springdale office. "Almost anyone can recognize their innocence in the matter."
Like Little Rock, the Springdale office has been flooded with requests for help with the application process. Both Head and Garcia said the program has exceeded expectations in terms of responsiveness, but applying presents a challenge for many eligible persons. Applicants must meet stringent guidelines, including having a clean criminal record and the ability to prove they have been living continuously in the United States since 2007.
"The first families to apply were the most organized," Head said. "These parents somehow knew to save every scrap of paper, every soccer participation award and every art award to prove their kids have been here. Now what we are seeing are people who have this but not that or who can prove these years but not those years."
"We have to be really creative," Garcia said, noting that her office has submitted gym membership receipts, envelopes bearing a postmark date sent to a certain address and even money order receipts as proof the applicant was in the U.S. during the required period of time.
While DACA is not a path to citizenship, nor is it amnesty, the measure has its detractors who argue it rewards people who, by being here, are breaking the law. With jobs and educational assistance dollars in short supply because of recent economic woes, they say, native-born individuals will ultimately be deprived similar opportunities.
Such opinions are flawed, said Head, as they are based on the premise of opportunity as a finite resource. Rather, he said, U.S. history has proven a capitalistic society runs best when fed by all comers, led by those motivated to reverse generations of poverty and disadvantage.
"The history of the United States is centered around waves of immigrants who were motivated and took advantage of opportunities across the board," he said.
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