New Hope for Undocumented Students

November 5, 2012 | CUNY Matters, The University

Clarisse was 8 when she was brought to the U.S. from the Caribbean. She discovered that she was undocumented when she had difficulty registering for high school in New York City, but her status was never adjusted because of divorce and dislocation in her family.

Now 27, Clarisse (not her real name) is among hundreds of CUNY students in the U.S. illegally, who hope to qualify for President Obama’s new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA).

Many students in the U.S. illegally have new hope of official temporary status.

On June 15, the president announced that the Department of Homeland Security would implement a policy for granting deferred action against deportation to undocumented young people who meet certain requirements. They will be granted deferred action for a two-year period, which can be renewed, and they’ll be eligible for permission to work in the U.S.

Attorneys with CUNY Citizenship Now! swiftly swung into action to offer free legal assistance to students who wish to take advantage of the opportunity to apply. Since August, Citizenship Now! staffers have been holding free DACA assistance events on CUNY campuses to answer questions, provide necessary photos and screen the forms and evidence that applicants must send to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“They leave the event fully prepared to mail the application to the USCIS,” said Tamara Bloom, legal coordinator for CUNY Citizenship Now!

To be considered for deferred action, among other requirements, applicants must show that they came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; have lived continuously in this country since June 15, 2007; were under age 31 as of June 15, 2012; are currently enrolled in school; have graduated or obtained a high school certificate; have not been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor; and do not pose a threat to public safety. A $465 fee is required with each application; individuals in limited circumstances such as chronic disability or extreme poverty may be eligible for a fee exemption.

Students reflecting the diverse CUNY student body have risen to the DACA challenge, Bloom said. “You get people just starting college; people who are Ph.D. students, master’s students, social workers; a legally blind person who is a pediatric psychiatry student; people who want to go to law school.”

Clarisse was one of 135 students who made the required appointment to participate in a September assistance event at LaGuardia Community College. She organized impressive evidence to support her application. During her 19 years in the U.S., Clarisse studied at Queens College, took a semester off to work in the hospitality industry, then earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in public health at Hunter College.

Despite some roadblocks along the way, caused by her illegal status, Clarisse received a Peter F. Vallone Academic Scholarship; was on the Dean’s List; was vice president of a student organization; and writes a health and wellness column for her church newsletter. Her objectives: to pursue a doctorate degree to teach, do research at John’s Hopkins University and then open a women’s health clinic. “I feel my future is brighter,” she said, “because once I get authorization I have a lot of options.”

CUNY informs students about the free legal assistance via e-mails sent to all students and campus liaisons; information is posted on www.cuny.edu and at the CUNY Citizenship Now! website: www.cuny.edu/dreamers.

In a Sept. 6 memo to college presidents, CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Board Secretary Jay Hershenson said that as of that date 1,800 CUNY students “have asserted that they qualify under the program,” and he said, “CUNY is committed to assisting all student DACA applicants.”

Baruch College professor Allan Wernick, an attorney who started and heads CUNY Citizenship Now! says students who qualify should apply. In a statement on the Citizenship Now! website he says some students fear if they sign up they are at risk for deportation because deportation is stayed for only two years. “Anyone who qualifies … who doesn’t apply is missing the opportunity of a lifetime,” Wernick states. He cautions, however, that an applicant with a criminal record could be deported.

A former Borough of Manhattan Community College student, who like Clarisse came to the U.S. from the Caribbean as a child and also asked to remain anonymous, was brought here from the Dominican Republic by a family friend to join his own family at age 10. “I had no idea I didn’t have any status,” he said. When he finally found out, in his last year in high school, he said: “I started crying. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to college. I was stressed. This is my home now…. I’m not Dominican any more.”

He wanted to study sports medicine but dropped out of BMCC after one semester because he “couldn’t afford to continue.” Now 29, he is a personal trainer and has an American-born daughter who is 8. “I hope I get this; I know I qualify,” he said of the DACA possibility. “If this happens I’m going to go back to school.”

Students who are approved for deferred action and receive a work permit, Bloom said, will get follow-up assistance from CUNY Citizenship Now! They’ll receive guidance on how to apply for a Social Security card and Medicaid, and obtain a New York driver’s license or non-driver ID card and the in-state tuition rate at CUNY. They will also receive cautionary information about possible pitfalls of traveling abroad.