Patsy Sveidy was only 7 years old when she crossed the United States-Mexico border with her grandmother.
“I basically though it was a really long hike,” recalls Sveidy, 26, of Aspen. I was scared at times, because I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Sveidy’s mother was already in the U.S. with valid immigration papers, but her father, who remained in Mexico, wouldn’t give his daughter legal permission to go. Sveidy’s grandmother decided they should go anyway, and they set off on foot.
“I remember seeing lots of clothes on the ground as I was walking,” she said. “It was really hot, and I remember grabbing a pair of jeans to cover my legs. I guess the bugs were biting me. I kept pulling my grandma to run with us, because everyone else in the group was way ahead.”
After surviving her trip across the desert, Sveidy arrived in Carbondale to live with her mom. She grew up working as a babysitter, house cleaner and a waitress as she made her way through school, but when she tried to apply to college she realized that she couldn’t get financial aid without a valid social security number.
She continued working service jobs, driving herself to work each day even though her legal status prevented her from getting a driver’s license.
“Driving, every time I would see a cop I was terrified, because I thought they were going to take me back [to Mexico],” she said. She was pulled over four times, but somehow was never deported.
Limited, specific and temporary: Deferred Action kicks in
Just over a year ago, on Aug. 15, 2012, President Barack Obama used his executive power to introduce a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program allows young undocumented immigrants like Sveidy who were brought to the U.S. as children to receive immunity from deportation for two years, along with a work permit and a chance at a driver’s license.
The law is a far cry from comprehensive immigration reform: It targets a specific group of immigrants widely seen as the most innocent in the long-raging immigration debate. The beneficiaries are young people who came to the U.S. before the age of 16, have lived here for the last five years, and have stayed in school and out of legal trouble.
The law is under-girded by the notion that young people have little control over which side of the border their parents wind up on. And with high school, college, jobs and relationships to worry about, they’re preoccupied enough without the fear of deportation looming over their heads.
Sveidy decided to apply for Deferred Action shortly after the policy was announced. She paid an application fee of $465, sent in her papers, and waited.
Once her work permit came through, she quit her job — she was working with a fake social security card, under another name — and took another as a bellhop at the Hotel Jerome. She’ll start school later this month to become a licensed massage therapist. In the meantime, she’s hustling like many other Aspenites to make ends meet.
“I do catering, I care-take, I babysit, I do it all,” she said.
Along with Sveidy, about 430,000 other young immigrants have received Deferred Action since the policy was introduced last year. That’s significantly fewer than the estimated 1.7 million young people who are eligible for the policy, according to Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Ted Hess.
“It’s come to a screeching halt recently,” said Hess. “We all thought that there would be a big pickup after Obama won the election, but it didn’t happen.”
One reason for the lull may be the deep-seated fear that many undocumented people feel about handing over personal information to the government.
Kenia Pinela, an 18-year-old graduate of Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 8 months old, said she hesitated at first to apply for Deferred Action because of rumors that it could get her parents — who are undocumented — in trouble.
“There were a lot of rumors that were going around that it could affect your parents, like they were going to search your parents’ history,” said Pinela, sitting at her kitchen table on a recent evening as her mother prepared dinner nearby.
Pinela’s mother, who didn’t want her name used, chopped vegetables as she described the unnerving decision for Kenia to apply for Deferred Action.
“We were worried that if a new president came in and took this away, what was going to happen to people who hadn’t completed the process?” she asked. “Would they be up for deportation?”
So far, such fears have not been borne out. Many Deferred Action recipients say they’re planning to renew their temporary legal status for another two years when it expires, but beyond that time frame, the future is uncertain.
Mixed messages on achievement
For many applicants, the Deferred Action program has been a way to square the years of hard work they’ve spent preparing for college or a job with their uncertain immigration status.
“I was on the honor roll almost every semester in high school, I was student body president, and there wasn’t a year where I didn’t think about dropping out,” said Alex Alvarado, 20, a former Carbondale resident who’s now attending Metro State College in Denver.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Kenia Pinela shows off the employment authorization card that she received under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program is a federal initiative allowing young people brought to the U.S. as children to stay here and work or go to school for two years, without fear of deportation.
“It wasn’t because I was bad at school. ... It was really because as an undocumented person, I felt I was becoming educated and able to work within the system in the U.S., and yet I knew that once I graduated there was no way I could work, because I didn’t have a social security number,” he said.
As a high school student in Carbondale, Alvarado worked at a pizza parlor, but he always had higher aspirations.
He applied for Deferred Action through the Glenwood Springs-based immigration attorney Jennifer Smith, and after his papers came through, Smith asked Alvarado if he would consider working for her.
“She said to stop by the office and see if she had any jobs available, and she followed through,” Alvarado said. “I was able to be a paralegal, and as an undocumented immigrant ... I’ve lived through what a lot of clients are going through.”
Pinela, who was a classmate of Alvarado’s at Roaring Fork High School and is now a student at Colorado Mountain College, had a parallel experience. She worked hard to prepare for college, she said, but hit a glass ceiling of sorts when she realized that she lacked the proper documentation to apply for scholarships and financial aid.
“I was so limited, and it was so frustrating, because I had worked so hard during high school,” she said. “I mean I was in all these clubs, the volleyball team, the soccer team, and I always had the image that if you’re in all these things and you’re so involved with the community you get a better chance of getting scholarships.”
Before her Deferred Action papers came through, Pinela was working as a babysitter for the Valley Settlement Project (VSP), a Carbondale nonprofit that works to educate the Roaring Fork Valley’s immigrant children and their parents, and improve their economic stability.
After receiving her work permit, Pinela took a job as a junior community organizer with VSP, teaching adult education classes, making home visits in Latino neighborhoods and assisting with the group’s mobile preschool program.
“Just working as a babysitter wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “After I got my documentation, I was able to move up and work as an organizer. Having documentation, it makes people look at you differently.”
A chance to be young and (somewhat) carefree
Aside from the practical benefits of better access to college and jobs, some Deferred Action beneficiaries say the policy has had a more subtle effect on their emotional health. Freedom from fear of deportation, they say, allows them to let down their guard and relax.
“Deferred Action gave me the ability to go out with my friends and let myself go a little more, because I don’t have to be as careful,” said Tony Franco-Mora, 19, of Parachute. “I’m more free, and I feel more comfortable.”
Franco-Mora works two jobs to help support his family, as a volunteer firefighter and a crew leader for an oil and gas servicing company. Both are jobs that he’s landed since his papers came through.
“It’s been easier to get a job, 1,000 times easier,” Franco-Mora said. “Plus, I got a driver’s license, which is a privilege. You need to drive around here.”
Pinela also said her temporary immunity from deportation has given her some psychic relief.
“It made everything just a little bit easier,” she said. “You feel safe. When you’re undocumented, you’re living your life in insecurity, because any minute you can just get taken away.”
Cinthia Rendon, a 23-year-old Montrose resident who came to the U.S. from Nayarit, Mexico nine years ago, said the policy had allowed her and her sister to do simple things like see R-rated movies.
“Before, when we wanted to go to the movies, they would ask for our ID, and we couldn’t show anything,” she said.
Hoping for a solution for their parents, too
For all of the political momentum the idea of comprehensive immigration reform had earlier this summer, it’s currently stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many House Republicans remain opposed to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S., and it remains unclear whether reform will pass this year.
The bill now under consideration would create a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants now in the U.S. illegally, provided they pay fines and maintain a clean criminal record. It also would phase in an electronic employment-verification system, create a variety of guest-worker programs for agricultural, high-tech and other foreign workers, and invest in more fencing and law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border.
If the bill passes in its current form, Deferred Action recipients would have a shorter, five-year path to citizenship, along with relief from the $2,000 penalty that other undocumented immigrants would need to pay.
Still, the chief concern of many Deferred Action beneficiaries remains not their own fate, but that of their undocumented parents.
Rendon said her mother works a housekeeping job nearly two hours away in Telluride, and drives almost four hours to work each day without a license. Getting caught, she said, would likely mean her mother’s deportation.
Franco-Mora said his parents are careful to avoid many public gatherings like concerts or parties, for fear of encountering law enforcement.
And Pinela’s mother, as she cooked dinner for her family on a recent evening in Carbondale, said the most tangible result of immigration reform would be simple peace of mind.
“The most important thing would be to be good here,” she said. “To not be afraid.”