Young immigrants seek hope for future
By Jenette Sturges firstname.lastname@example.org September 20, 2012 7:14PM
World Relief volunteer Ken Bataille of Aurora helps young immigrants fill out applications for Deferred Action during a workshop at Aurora's First Presbyterian Church on Thursday, September 20, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
New 2011 census data released Thursday showed slowing growth nationally in the country’s foreignborn population, which increased to 40.4 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. population. Last year’s immigration increase of 400,000 people was the lowest in a decade, reflecting a minimal gain of Latinos after many Mexicans already in the U.S. opted to return home. Some 11 million people are estimated to be in the U.S. illegally.
Total population: 520,271
Foreign born: 19.5 percent, up from 18.2 percent in 2010
Region of birth of foreign born (2010):
Latin America: 74.6 percent
Asia: 11.8 percent
Europe: 10.2 percent
Africa: 2.1 percent
Oceania: 0.1 percent
Other: 1.3 percent
Language spoken at home: English only, 68.1 percent
Total population: 116,631
Foreign born: 10.5 percent, up from 8.0 percent in 2010
Region of birth of foreign born: Not available
Language spoken at home: Not available
Total population: 923,222
Foreign born: 17.6 percent, down from 18.7 percent in 2010
Region of birth of foreign born:
Asia: 42.4 percent
Latin America: 30.4 percent
Europe: 23.2 percent
Africa: 2.8 percent
Oceania: 0.3 percent
Other: 0.8 percent
Language spoken at home: English only, 73.1 percent
Updated: September 20, 2012 9:43PM
AURORA — They started lining up early, when the parking lot outside the Harkness Center of First Presbyterian Church on Aurora’s near East Side was still dark.
The World Relief Deferred Action Workshop, offering legal advice and help filling out mounds of paperwork, didn’t start until 1 p.m. Thursday. But the first-come, first-serve workshop only had room for a few hundred young immigrants, all hoping to apply for Deferred Action status providing an official stay of deportation proceedings, the chance at a Social Security card, work authorization and a drivers license or state ID.
The Obama Administration policy, officially called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has been controversial. It is neither a law nor an executive order, and thus, could be repealed at any time. It fails to provide a permanent solution to the country’s patchwork immigration system. It provides no path to citizenship — only two years’ legal status — to only a select group of young immigrants.
But for those young people standing in line Thursday morning, even a short reprieve from the fear of deportation and the chance to get documents to further their educations and careers, was worth the wait.
“I’ve been here since 4:30 a.m.” Irma said, holding up her copy of “50 Shades of Grey,” which kept her entertained all morning.
The best-seller in her lap is just one clue in speaking with Irma that she’s the product of American culture.
“If you ask me questions about over there (in Mexico) I really don’t know. I’ve been raised here. I know the culture here. When my parents have events and cultural traditions, I’m confused, but I don’t know the Mexican culture the same as they do.”
Irma crossed the border into the U.S. with her family at the age of 5. The trip was scary, she recalls, though only in snippets of memory that seem surreal now, 13 years later.
“I remember going under this fence with strangers, my parents telling my older brother — he’s 22 now — ‘whatever you do, don’t go back,’” Irma said. “Sometimes I have to ask my mom, ‘Did that really happen?’”
Her parents and siblings settled immediately in Elgin where they already had family. She started kindergarten in a bilingual class days after her arrival, and now, at 18, is studying at Elgin Community College to eventually become an ultrasound technician.
“I’ve always been interested in the medical field, in little kids and technology,” she said.
Outside of school, she works part time as a sales associate and plays soccer. Her older brother is also in college.
While she said she’s nervous that she’ll get denied for Deferred Action, she doesn’t hide her undocumented status.
“No, I don’t hide it,” she said. “I’m proud that I’m in school, and I’m pretty proud of my family and what we’ve done here. I would go back (to Mexico) to visit family, but I already have my own life here.”
Seventeen-year-old Susana, from Melrose Park, is proud to tick off her many accomplishments.
“In school I run cross country and play soccer,” she said. “I’m in French Club and (National Honor Society). After school I’m in my dance troupe in church. I’m a leader and help the little girls with their steps two days a week.”
She’s also happy to announce her 3.8 GPA — she brought her homework to keep busy while waiting in line — and her dream of becoming a pediatric nurse and a missionary.
“I want to travel to China and India to help children there because there aren’t enough nurses to help care for children properly,” she said.
Her other dream? Getting a Social Security card or other official documentation means she’ll be allowed to travel internationally and meet her grandparents for the first time since her family left Puebla, Mexico, at the age of 2.
“If I went back (for good) I wouldn’t know what to do,” she said. “I feel like this is my country.”
Susana said she’s worried about the upcoming election, and she’s clearly not alone. Lines for the Aurora workshop on Thursday were shorter than at previous workshops. The Department of Homeland Security has not announced a deadline for the young immigrants to file for Deferred Action, so many are waiting until after the November election to file.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been nearly silent on how he would address the problem of illegal immigration, saying only that he would completely replace Obama’s temporary measure with a “long-term solution.” But Susana said her decision to apply now was a matter of timing.
“I’m applying for college,” she said. “I can’t fill out my FAFSA to apply for financial aid. I can’t even apply for schools. And I want my driver’s license.”
Nearly 40 percent of Ghananians were living in poverty in the late 1990s, when Sam’s family brought her to the U.S.
“They wanted a better life for me,” she said, pulling the earbuds out of her ears, leaning back in the chair she brought along for her long wait in line.
Sam now lives in Romeoville. The 17-year-old earns straight As in school and wants to be a doctor.
“I need a Social Security number or papers for college,” she said. “I just want to get my license and get a job, too.”
And though she proclaimed she was not nervous about the Deferred Action process — her mother collected her documents and filled out her forms for her — officially announcing her immigration status to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security does make Same just a bit uneasy.
“I feel like I’m a citizen,” Sam said. “If I’m worried, maybe it’s about getting sent back. My whole life, my whole education would be messed up.”
It may sound like a small problem, she concedes, but 23-year-old Karina said she’ll just be happy to be able to go out with her friends.
“It sucks not being able to go to a nice club, because they won’t accept your Mexican ID at the door,” she said.
But there’s a more important reason the young woman from Westmont was standing in line Thursday: the many semesters she’s already put in at nursing school.
“I graduated as an RN, and I’m eager to get started,” she said. “But you need a Social Security number to take the state boards. I’m hoping I’ll qualify (for Deferred Action). It’ll be a 360 on my life.”
Right now, Karina is working two restaurant jobs to get by and support her 4-year-old daughter. She makes minimum wage paid under the table.
“So something like this is a dream come true,” she said. “The fees don’t even matter.”
Karina came to the U.S. legally from Guadalajara as a toddler, but when her parents found steady work and a life in Chicago, they overstayed their visas and put down roots.
“Things were rough there, and my parents wanted something better for us,” she said. “My dad’s hardworking, and when they found jobs, they thought, we might as well stay. Then they had a hard time navigating the immigration system. They just didn’t know how to do it.”
She grew up in the city, running track and cross country and getting good grades in high school. While she loves nursing, Karina said that someday she’d like to continue her education and open her own anesthesiology practice.
She said that while she’s aware that the policy is only temporary, her excitement far outweighs her nerves.
“If it’s just two years, I’ll take advantage of it. Even if things change, if you’re a good contributor, a hard worker, if you have loyalty to the county, I don’t think God would let (deportation) happen,” she said. “But I’d rather have two years, or four or six years out of the shadows than nothing at all.”