More than half a million immigrants nationwide took advantage of the policy that protects against deportation and offers a work permit for those who qualify. These young people applied for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, two years ago. Now they are renewing. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports it’s estimated hundreds of people in the Roaring Fork Valley applied.
I meet Cristina Pena in the Walmart parking lot in Glenwood Springs. The 24-year-old is still wearing her uniform. She just finished her shift as a cashier.
"I help with customer assistance, if I can. I can’t move from my cash register too far."
Reporter: "You’re stuck there during the workday?"
Pena is a DACA beneficiary and she’s applying to renew her status. The program has allowed her to obtain a work permit, social security number and driver’s license, which led to her job at Walmart. The mother of three is also enjoying cheaper tuition at a community college and more security behind the wheel.
"I can drive comfortably knowing that I have my drivers license with me and not afraid of being stopped by a police officer," she says.
Young people like Pena who came to the U.S. without permission when they were kids are eligible to apply for DACA. Under the program, beneficiaries are no longer considered illegal for at least two years.
Stacey Stone is an immigration attorney in Glenwood. She estimates her office has helped between 400 and 500 young people in the Roaring Fork Valley apply for the program.
"I think a large majority of them are younger people. I had some kids that came in when they were 14 and a half and we mailed in their application when they turned fifteen. And they’re eager to help out their family or just be more confident walking down the street."
But she says DACA is just a temporary fix and many beneficiaries are hoping for broader immigration reform.
"Two years isn’t very long for a lot of these kids who have lived in the United States since they were an infant and they don’t know any other country as their home. So, two years doesn’t seem like a lot."
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that supports tighter controls on immigration.
"The premise behind DACA and this is repeated over and over again by its supporters is that these young people are Americans in all but paperwork, who have emotionally and psychologically have been formed here," he says.
He sees DACA as amnesty for the young people who qualify. He doesn’t support an expansion of the program, which the Obama administration is debating.
"They’re talking about setting up various criteria like if you’ve been here for at least ten years and have U.S. born kids, then they’ll give you this status. That’s simply not appropriate for the executive branch to do."
He thinks the administration overstepped its authority when it approved DACA in 2012.
Back in Glenwood Springs, young mother Cristina Pena knows little of the heated debate in Washington. She’s focused on maintaining her DACA status for as long as possible. Ultimately, she’d like to see greater protection for immigrants like herself.
"A path to residence or citizenship. That would be great, not just a permit. I’m sometimes worried that they want to take that away and I think, what am I going to do if I don’t have this again."