Sandra Tovar graduated from Texas A&M University in May 2011, but because she was an undocumented immigrant, she couldn’t effectively use her science degree.
“It is very frustrating to know you have majored in one of the fields where it is hard to get people — especially being bilingual — and that you are not able to do anything with it,” Tovar said.
Instead of working in her field, she cleaned houses, mostly in wealthy Dallas neighborhoods.
Sindy Velazquez, a student at Tarrant County College, said she was always looking over her shoulder — especially when driving — because of her undocumented status.
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So last year, when the federal government unveiled a program that allowed qualified undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary work permits and avoid deportation, Tovar, Velazquez and thousands of others applied.
Both young women were approved for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and now have temporary work permits and driver’s licenses.
“I feel more safe,” said Velazquez, 19.
Tovar, 26, got a job as a nutritionist and decided it was time to show off her diploma.
“I actually did not frame my diploma until I got deferred action,” she said. “It was just a piece of paper that was sitting at my house. I didn’t frame it until I got my work permit — that’s when it was put up. It was actually worth something then.”
A temporary status
Immigrants on deferred status call themselves the “DACAmented” — a term that refers to being “sort of” documented or legal.
People who received deferred action are not deported or placed into removal proceedings for two years, according to the Homeland Security Department. Applicants had to be under age 31 as of June 15, 2012.
But deferred action does not make immigrants legal or documented, according to immigration authorities.
“It’s a short-term humanitarian thing,” said Brad Wilson, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Dallas.
People who received deferred action can request a two-year extension through a process to be detailed in the future, Wilson said.
Extension requests are considered case by case, he said.
Even with her new status and promising future, Velazquez said, she feels uneasy.
“It’s still very temporary,” she said. “We still don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Tovar, who is working as a nutritionist and clinic supervisor in Cleburne, said everything could change when the program expires for her in December 2014.
“I think we’ve gone through so much that we are immune to the pain,” Tovar said.
Still a hot-button issue
The deferred-action program, announced on June 15, 2012, allowed young undocumented immigrants to stay in the country as immigration reform emerged as — and remains — a major political issue for both Democrats and Republicans.
Even as legislation has stalled in the House, President Barack Obama remains optimistic that an immigration overhaul will eventually pass.
“But I’d rather get this done soon than later,” Obama told a group of pro-immigration activists the day after Thanksgiving.
The GOP also favors reform, said David Zapata, director of Hispanic outreach for the Republican Party of Texas.
“We welcome immigration, and we want to facilitate immigration for folks who are already here,” Zapata said.
Marco Malagon, president of the North Texas Dream Team, a national group of mostly undocumented youths, said it is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform that protects families.
But he also noted the significance of the deferred-action program.
“We have tons, tons of Dreamers who, once deferred action opened doors, were able to use their degrees,” Malagon said.
Federal data show that 455,455 people were approved for deferred action from Aug. 31, 2012, to Aug. 15, 2013. California (134,857) and Texas (72,408) led the nation in the number approved.
The top five native countries listed by people approved for deferred action were Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and South Korea.
An estimated 11.7 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in 2012, according to a Pew Research report issued this year.
‘We are still doing vigils’
Before she received deferred action, Tovar, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico with her family at age 13, didn’t stay in the so-called shadows of the undocumented.
When the deferred-action plan was unveiled, Tovar and others helped more than 1,700 students in Dallas-Fort Worth apply for the temporary status.
She remains active with the North Texas Dream Team and continues to use social media and sister support groups to fight anti-immigrant sentiment.
Dreamers nationwide pushed back when the Young Conservatives of Texas at the University of Texas at Austin planned a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” event. Because of backlash and concerns about retaliation, the Young Conservatives canceled the event, which they called a game.
“We are still doing vigils,” Tovar said. “We are still doing phone calls.”
Malagon emphasized that deferred action is not the endgame for Dreamers.
“It’s been great to have an opportunity, but we know that it is not enough,” Malagon said. “What we are really aiming for is a real solution.”