The young woman is working hard to stand out. She gets up every morning to go to her job as a receptionist in a Santa Ana office. Then when the workday is done she jumps on a bus and heads to her college classes.
But despite her efforts, the 21-year-old feels as if she doesn’t exist, because she was brought illegally from her native Mexico to the United States as an infant and therefore has no documents to live or work here.
“I don’t want to be invisible anymore,” said the woman, explaining why she has applied to the United States government for proper documentation under the politically charged Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Since the inception of the program on Aug. 15, she is among 308,935 others who are 31-years-old or younger and have applied to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) program to move from the invisible category toward federally certified members of U.S. society.
To be eligible, a person must have entered the U.S. before 16 years of age, lived here continuously since 2007, be a high school graduate or have served in the military and not be a felon. Program acceptance provides two deportation waivers, and individuals can apply for work authorization.
Those in the program can live without fear of deportation, receive wages, pay taxes and seek permanent residency or citizenship. Federal officials said that by Nov. 15 nearly 300,000 people nationwide were accepted for consideration. The vast majority are from Mexico. The leading non-American nation for applications is South Korea with 4,880.
The number of applicants can be broken down state by state — California leads the nation with 81,858 — but there are no exact figures for counties. The number of people who have requested their transcripts from local schools — a key document for DACA approval — is more than 10 percent of the statewide total, indicating a substantial share are from Orange County.
As the sixth largest district in the state, with its 54,000 students including many children of immigrants, the Santa Ana Unified School District provided more than 7,500 transcripts to students by early November, officials said.
“We were able to turn around most requests in two weeks,” said John Palacio, a school board trustee.
Not every person seeking a transcript applies to DACA, but comparison to prior years gives an indication of DACA applications.
In the Garden Grove Unified School District, a spokesman said the district office provided 1,917 transcripts between Aug. 1 and Nov. 27 compared with only 176 transcripts in August 2011. The Anaheim Union High School District and the Orange Unified School District have also experienced a large jump in transcript requests.
While the number of DACA applications is substantial, it is still a fraction of the 1.7 million who are eligible nationwide.
Prior to President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in last month’s election, which exit polls show was due in large part to the Latino vote, there was much speculation about whether people might be fearful of applying fr DACA.
Romney stated during the campaign that he would halt the program, leading some students to delay applying because they worried that a Romney administration might use the information to immediately deport them.
Nonetheless while some DACA applicants acknowledged that fear, the number of transcript requests as well as interviews with applicants indicate there were more who were afraid of missing the opportunity and opted to take their chances.
“I thought they might halt applications, then only those who already had applied would be accepted,” said the Santa Ana receptionist, who also attends Cal State Fullerton.
Far more than any fear of backlash, the largest hurdle to the program seems to be its cost. The government charges $465 for each application it processes.
Additionally, the California attorney general’s office has warned applicants to be wary of scam artists, who advertise expert guidance on the process and persuade people to pay more than the government’s fee.
But for those who can afford the fee and avoid scams, the DACA process can be a watershed moment. Only after applying for the program do many fully comprehend their illegal status.
For instance, the full reality didn’t dawn on the receptionist until she was turned down for aid at Santa Ana College after graduating from high school.
Interviews with two 17-year-old seniors from two Orange Unified high schools reflect circumstance of many DACA applicants.
The boy and girl became friends at county schools. Both were 3 when brought from Mexico by parents, she from near Mazatlan, Sinaloa, he from Tijuana, Baja California. Speaking in perfect English, both talked of their aspirations for community-oriented jobs. She wants to be a teacher, he a registered nurse.
The significance of living here illegally sunk in over the years for both, but more dramatically for the boy, given what he recalled occurred when he was 8.
The phone rang one day at his mother’s home in Santa Ana. It was his older sister, who lived with her father in Tijuana. The family had been separated her since his mother took the boy and his brother across the border years earlier.
The boy’s sister was calling from Disneyland, where she was on a school trip. His mother saw an opportunity to reunite her children, even if it meant that she had to “kidnap” her daughter. She and her new husband bundled the boy and his brother into the car, and the family dashed off for their first trip to the famous theme park.
Connecting via cell phone, they found the boy’s sister at the base of the Matterhorn leaving a ride while the other classmates waited to enter. The sister joined the family, who quickly strode down Main Street, out of the park and to new lives.
“It was great,” recalled the boy. “It was crazy; but it was great.”
Today, both his sister and his brother also are applying for DACA.
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