Rocio Hernandez and Rodrigo Morales were strangers before Wednesday morning, when they sat side by side in immigration lawyer Jackie Watson’s South Austin law office.
Though they’re from different regions in Mexico and came to the U.S. under different circumstances, they quickly found that they have a common goal: They both hope that their applications for deferred action will survive the months of scrutiny by immigration officials.
Hernandez and Morales are just two of thousands of illegal immigrants in Texas who became eligible this week to apply under the policy change the Obama administration announced in June. Being accepted for deferred action would grant them relief from deportation proceedings and allow them to work for two years if they meet certain guidelines. It’s not legal status or citizenship, they acknowledge. But at least it’s a chance to come out of the shadows and live — even temporarily — with more comfort in the country they have known almost all of their lives.
“I think it’s a really big deal,” said Morales, 17. “I have seen on TV how people are scared and don’t want to apply for deferred action because they are afraid that if they don’t get accepted then they will get deported. But I think it’s more important to try.”
Deferred action may be approved for certain immigrants currently in the country illegally and who arrived before they were 16 and who were younger than 31 as of the June 15 announcement. They must have graduated or currently be enrolled in school, have earned a GED or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces. They must have also lived in the country consistently since June 15, 2007, and have never been convicted of a serious misdemeanor, three misdemeanors or a felony. The program is under the purview of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees legal immigration to the U.S.
Texas is second to California in the number of immigrants who could immediately apply — about 152,550 to California’s 298,000, according to the Immigration Policy Center. Applications for deferred action and the work permits cost a total of $465.
Morales came to Texas in 2006 from Mexico City on a tourist visa with his family and has been in the country illegally since it expired shortly after he arrived. He’s a senior at an Austin-area high school and had his sights set on majoring in theater after he graduates. Hernandez, 21, was brought here by relatives when she was 6 from Michoacán after her father died. She’s never had legal status, but she graduated from an Austin public school in 2011. She works at a loan office in Austin and says her employers told her she has their support, which she says may translate to a better life if her application is approved.
“They told me, 'We’ll be more than happy to work with you and give you more money and give you more hours,'” Hernandez said.
Watson said Hernandez’s situation is “textbook” and that she should get approved. But the attorney said it with an air of caution because nothing is ever “black and white” with immigration. That’s evident when Hernandez talks about her sister, who is also in the country illegally but isn’t planning to apply for deferred action because she never finished high school.
“Don’t give up,” Watson told Hernandez. “We’ll put her butt back in school, and then we can apply for, her so never give up, don’t make the determination by yourself. Make sure that you are not eligible before you give up.”
Hernandez and Morales could be considered textbook, so much so that Watson said they might not necessarily need an attorney. But because deferred action is discretionary, Watson said some applicants should heed legal advice.
“If you have ever had contact with immigration officials, good or bad, and that includes deportation proceedings, you’ve been arrested, you’ve been removed, talk to an attorney,” she said.
“If you have ever been arrested criminally — and don’t take it for granted that nothing happened or my record was clean — don’t take that for granted. If you have ever talked to a cop that you didn’t call because you weren’t the victim, you should probably talk to an attorney.”
Watson doesn’t know how many applicants she’ll speak with or how many will seek her advice — but she said she’s fielded hundreds of inquiries since the policy was announced. That said, she is also advising some potential applicants to wait.
“Take it slow; you only get one shot, there’s no appeal,” she said. “It’s not clear if you can submit another application if you’ve been denied, with more evidence. But why would you want to lose your $465? So don’t feel like you’re in a rush to get that application in because you want to be one of the first ones in.”
But a slower approach wasn’t as appealing for Hernandez and Morales, who sat before Watson together wearing giddy smiles.
“Why wait? Morales said. “If the opportunity is here and it’s right there at your reach, then why wait to grab it?”
“We’ve waited long enough,” Hernandez added. “But hope is the last thing we’ll lose.”
“Magnet for Fraud”
The deferred action announcement has drawn the anger of Republicans who call the move amnesty and who have assailed President Obama for making the election-year move without congressional approval.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, has sent out statements nearly every week since the program was announced, accusing Obama of catering to illegal immigrants ahead of U.S. citizens.
“With Americans’ jobs on the line, the Administration should take all the necessary steps to protect their livelihoods. Because there is no fee for the amnesty application, American taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for President Obama’s amnesty when the Administration comes running to Congress for more money to clear the backlog created by the program,” Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.
“American taxpayers should not be forced to bail out illegal immigrants and President Obama’s fiscally irresponsible policies. How can the Administration justify implementing a fraud-ridden program that will deprive Americans of jobs and cost taxpayers? “
Proponents of the measure, however, say deferred action is a way to use the federal government’s limited resources on finding and removing dangerous criminal aliens while allowing people brought to this country through no fault of their own a chance to succeed.
“Childhood arrivals who meet the guidelines and whose cases are deferred will now be able to live without fear of removal, and be able to more fully contribute their talents to our great nation,” USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Wednesday.
The controversy isn’t lost on Watson — or any other potential applicant, like Morales and Hernandez.
“I have hope," Morales said. "I never lose hope about the greater good."