By Jose Gaspar
The facilities at Believers of Jesus Church on Planz Road were teeming with young people eager yet wary of how to fill out a government form that could grant them a chance to remain in the country without fear of deportation. They came to get legal advice and help in filling out the form at an information session hosted by the United Farm Workers Foundation. And they asked a lot of questions such as: Is the government asking for my full name or the name on my school records? Do I put down that I came here with a visa or a permit? What if I was brought here undocumented?
This group and thousands of others more throughout the country were among the first to turn out under a new federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It allows certain young people who were brought here illegally as children to defer deportation, giving them temporary legal status for two years. It also allows them to obtain work permits, a social security card and a driver's license if they meet certain criteria such as no serious criminal record.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that up to 1.7 million students and military veterans could qualify. It gives young people a chance to come out of the shadows and, most of all, it gives them hope to fully integrate and be a contributing member of society.
And for many, it's a concept hard to fathom.
"Is this really happening now? It's almost like you couldn't believe it," said 20-year-old Esmeralda Pena, who was in attendance.
Brought to this country illegally from Mexico without having any say in the matter (she was 8 at the time), Pena said she always knew she was somehow different than her friends, but she didn't really grasp the significance until she turned 16 when her friends began obtaining a driver's license and she could not because of her legal status. Pena graduated from Bakersfield College this year with a 3.8 GPA and earned an athletic scholarship to attend an out-of-state university.
The information sessions around Kern County hosted by the UFWF have all been very well attended so far, and some people have had to be turned away and told to attend a future session, said organizer Paola Fernandez. It's been even more dramatic in large urban centers when the program was rolled out on Aug. 15.
In Chicago, for example, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights drastically underestimated how many would turn out for help in filling out the form. More than 10,000 jammed Navy Pier, clearly overwhelming organizers.
"There were a lot of young people who seemed to make a party atmosphere out of the whole thing," said Chicago radio reporter Gerardo Torres. Many, however, were clearly upset about the poor planning, having to pay expensive parking rates in downtown Chicago and miss a day of work only to be turned away.
Others appeared to be uneasy about providing detailed personal information about themselves and their families to the government, said Torres.
In Los Angeles, thousands lined up for the same thing at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. The scene repeated itself elsewhere throughout the country.
However in Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer issued an executive order at the eleventh hour barring those who qualify for deferred action from receiving a driver's license. Talk about being a sore loser.
A recent Supreme Court ruling tossed out most of Arizona's draconian SB 1070 law, which targeted illegal immigrants. Since Brewer can't prevent people from applying for deferred action, the governor apparently thinks it's a bad idea to have them drive with a license in her state.
And it's likely Brewer's own executive order contradicts Arizona law. As the ACLU points out, under the governor's executive order, applicants for driver's licenses need only establish their presence in the United States is authorized. And under deferred action status, young people will have authorized presence in the country, though it may be temporary.
Moreover, Arizona's own Department of Motor Vehicles guidelines state that acceptable documents include Employment Authorization Documents and Social Security cards, both of which are available to recipients of deferred action. Two days after Brewer's move, fellow Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska followed Arizona's lead.
We've been down this road before, and it will most likely lead to another constitutional showdown at sundown between the states and the feds.
Not all Republican governors are tripping over themselves for political posturing.
The latest Republican governor to get into the act is Rick Perry of Texas. Perry writes in a letter to the Texas attorney general that the new immigration policy "does not undermine or change our state laws." And he concludes by writing, "I expect our state agencies to continue to comply with and enforce the laws."
Perry did not sign an executive order explicitly prohibiting the issuing of driver's licenses, but rather appears to be telling his people not to comply with the new policy.
As for California, the governor's office directed me to the DMV. In a carefully worded statement, the agency said: "It appears that young people who receive federal deferrals will be eligible for California driver's licenses, but it remains uncertain whether clarifying legislation or regulations will be necessary." Stay tuned.
Politics aside, Pena and other thousands of young people like her in Kern County applying for deferred action are relying on this Band-Aid approach to give them a chance to make something of their young lives.
"I feel I am an American. I've been here for so long I consider it my home though I wasn't born here," Pena said.
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at email@example.com.