LAS VEGAS JOURNAL-REVIEW
By Tom Ragan
November 5, 2012
They stand in long lines, then peer through the tiny holes of glass windows, asking loads of questions. They hope to get a shot at the coveted two-year work permit.
Step by step, they inch closer. They eventually take seats inside small offices. They consult in great detail with those versed in the immigration guidelines of the federal government. It's an entirely different language in and of itself. They pray that their proof of U.S. residency will suffice.
Then, after their paperwork has been stamped, filed and mailed to the U.S.Citizenship and Immigration Service in a distant Washington, D.C., they anxiously wait for that letter of approval, which, in effect, will temporarily suspend their deportations.
They dream of those letters.
And when they're not dreaming, the more politically inclined are out staging early voting rallies at local malls with similar societal underdogs - like the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Las Vegas, which was the case a few weeks ago. They're the DREAMers.
They're young, undocumented immigrants - an estimated 1.2 million strong - who were raised in the United States, educated here and are just beginning to gain a political voice. But with the presidential election looming Tuesday, they're forced to sit this one out.
Because they are born outside the United States, DREAMers cannot vote. But who wins the presidential election could greatly affect their status here, many DREAMers believe. Meanwhile, they face the daily dilemma on whether to live in the shadows and face possible deportation - or put their trust in the federal government and apply for the two-year permit that could ultimately lead to U.S. citizenship.
Their predicament has been retold in political circles ad nauseam- so much so that the literal meaning of their actual acronym has long been upstaged by its very spirit: To dream someday of becoming U.S. citizens under the Development, Resource and Education of an Alien Minor, or DREAM Act.
It was a piece of legislation that was first introduced to Congress a month shy of Sept. 11 , but since then the life-altering bill has been held up twice by a divided Congress, even though on both occasions the legislation was co-authored across party aisles.
But in mid-June, President Barack Obama intervened, using his executive powers to allow the DREAMers to apply for two-year work permits. It's a process that still won't give them the right to vote but was designed to put them on that eventual path.
FEWER THAN EXPECTED APPLY
If there were ever a politically connected yet paradoxically disenfranchised group, it would be the DREAMers. To date, only 15 percent of those eligible have filed for the two-year work permits. That amounts to 180,000 applications, dismally fewer than expected.
The theories for such a low application rate abound, from the endless red tape of the immigration process to the fear that their information could make it easier for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport them if their petitions are ultimately rejected.
In Las Vegas, however, the number of permit requests is on the rise, partly because they fear Mitt Romney, if elected president, could repeal Obama's Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals and veto the DREAM Act should it ever be approved by Congress.
Indeed, Obama's executive tweaking of the immigration law caused somewhat of a ruckus among the Republicans who regarded the move as, at worst, unconstitutional, and at best, a baseless political move to bolster the Latino vote for Democrats.
Caught in the middle of all this are the DREAMers themselves whose latest estimates approach 30,000 in the Silver State.
"It's terrible not to be able to vote, but that doesn't mean you can't help get the vote out," said Astrid Silva, 24, a DREAMer and Las Vegas resident whose two-year application was approved a few weeks ago and who duly showed up at the new Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Las Vegas to perform her non-civic duty of submitting her fingerprints, all part of the federal deal.
CENTER FOR LAS VEGAS DREAMS
At Hermandad Mexicana, long considered the heart and soul of the local Mexican community, the constant ringing of phones is only rivaled by the constant ringing of cow bells - to signal yet another DREAMer application having been completed, then filed with the federal government.
The nonprofit group, which operates in the poorer neighborhoods of the central valley, offers the most inexpensive rate around Nevada, charging only $75 to process reams of paperwork. This includes copies of everything from high school diplomas to medical records to any shred of evidence that points to proof of U.S. residency before the age of 16 and between the dates of June 15, 2007, and June 15, 2012.
To date, Hermandad Mexicana has sent 1,000 applications on their way and has gotten back 25 approvals. It's a time span that's proving to be between four and six weeks. So far there have been no rejections, said Luz Marina Mosquera, the executive director who easily works 60-hour weeks with her staff of eight for the sake of "the kids."
"Most of them are just out of high school, and some of them are still in high school," said Marina Mosquera, who was born in Colombia and worked in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles before being transferred to Las Vegas eight years ago.
Monica Valenzuela, 24, is indebted to Marina Mosquera. She's one of the more recent to dive-bomb down to the nonprofit to apply for her work permit, her chief incentive to ensure she and her 4-year-old son, Rolando, are never separated.
In what is a thumbnail sketch of the vast complexities of the immigration law, Rolando, by mere virtue of being born here, is a U.S. citizen while his mother is not. He can stay; she'll have to go unless the immigration laws change someday.
"I've heard the horror stories," said Valenzuela, a graduate of Basic High School. "I didn't want to become a part of them. I have no clue what Durango, Mexico, is like. I was born there, yes, OK, and I think I even still have family there, but I don't know them."
Her predicament is not much different from the European immigrants who came to Ellis Island years ago by boat and who have often entertained the notion that they have cousins somewhere in Greece or Poland or Italy but they certainly wouldn't show up on their doorsteps if suddenly they were deported.
Valenzuela falls into the somewhat crazy category of straddling that definition of "first generation" but doesn't quite make the cut. Las Vegas is all she knows. She's been here since age 4. She's been little elsewhere.
Even though she doesn't have a Social Security card, she holds a minimum-wage job at a local fast-food restaurant. She said the employers know and trust her. Immigrants have literally died trying to cross the Arizona desert for the likes of it - to serve a burger and fries from behind the counter.
By no means does Valenzuela take the job for granted, yet she'd like to pursue a higher education, a second reason she was compelled to apply for her work permit.
"I want to be able to someday go to college, and they told me that if I want to, then this is the first thing I've got to do," she said.
THE FEARS PERSIST
But nationally, the turnout in numbers is surprisingly low, whether for political reasons or whether it's merely part and parcel of negotiating the federal government's red tape and bureaucratic process.
Others fear that their information, if they are denied, could be used against them by ICE - a cold acronym among the immigrant community, and not just something to watch out for on mountain roadways.
Hermandad's executive director, Marina Mosquera, believes the dismal number of applications nationally could simply be the wait-and-see attitude of many DREAMers during the presidential campaign.
"I think many are just afraid and don't know what's going to happen next," she said. "If Obama is elected, watch out, because we're going to get a lot more applicants."
But if Romney is elected, the turnout might slacken, she said, adding that his use of the word "self-deport" hasn't exactly helped matters. While Romney clarified his position in one of the presidential debates, saying that he meant immigrants would ultimately "self-deport" if they didn't make it financially in the United States, the word in and of itself scares DREAMers, for whom deportation is an everyday reality, she said.
Andrew Driggs, an immigration lawyer and chapter chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the entire "self-deportation" issue is overhyped.
"I have a hard time believing that Mitt Romney would take away the kids' driver's licenses and their work permits his first day in office," Driggs said. "He's going to have other priorities. It just doesn't seem likely that he would take away these benefits."
He urged all DREAMers to start applying for the permits.
"Nothing is going to change after the election," Driggs said. "The rules will still remain the same."
But if Romney becomes president, the scenario could be different.
"In my opinion Mitt Romney is dangerous to my future and that of other DREAMers," Silva said . "I believe that knowing that we built such a movement against him, he will retaliate, if elected, and take away our ability to continue applying for Deferred Action. ... With Obama at least we have a chance."