Program helps students toward 'a better future'

ARLINGTON--Sam Houston High School's student parking lots are as unattainable as a field of dreams for many east Arlington students who struggle with the day-to-day challenges of undocumented immigrant status.

Fernando Benavides, the new principal at Sam Houston, started asking questions after he noticed the large number of empty spaces in the student parking lots about a month ago. With a student enrollment of more than 3,000, the number of empty spaces just didn't add up.

"It's the simplest thing," explained Student Council President Zara Suleman, 16. "We've had a lot of problems with parking because undocumented students can't get a driver's license or Social Security card."

A valid driver's license and auto insurance are required by the district before a student can buy a parking pass.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a federal plan enacted by the Department of Homeland Security in June to help young undocumented immigrants gain some basic tools for success and avoid deportation, could change things for the students.

Teens and young adults from 15 to 30 are stepping up in large numbers to document their existence and establish an identity. DACA offers a two-year respite from the threat of deportation. Students with clean criminal records who have proof of at least five years of continuous residency can apply for a driver's license and employment if they are approved.

With that in mind, Benavides and other AISD officials hosted a public information program for students and parents who live in the Sam Houston attendance zone to talk about DACA. Though he was unsure how many would attend, Benavides said about 500 people filled the meeting area.

"I thought it was a great turnout for students and parents. I think my concern was dispelling some of the misinformation that's going around," Benavides said afterward.

"It was chaos," said Arlington immigration attorney R.S. "Rob" Ghio, who gave a presentation and stayed to answer questions after the meeting. "There were so many people with questions, it went on for another two hours."

800,000 affected

The Arlington district's student demographics are 42 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white, 23 percent African American and 6 percent Asian. AISD, like Fort Worth and nearby Mansfield, is considered a "majority minority" district, meaning no demographic group is more than 50 percent of the school population.

The response at Sam Houston mirrors the enthusiasm of students across the country. Officials say the DACA act is drawing hundreds of thousands of students, paperwork in hand, who are seeking a chance at a transparent and less complicated life.

"The best numbers are 800,000 who could be affected by this," Ghio said.

A study released this month on the DREAM Act and reported by the Texas Tribune stated that Texas could realize $66 billion in economic impact by 2030 if the young immigrants get work permits and better jobs. Conversely, a study released in August by the Center for American Progress said that if only 15 percent of Texas' 1.65 million illegal immigrants were suddenly deported, the state's economic losses would be about $11.7 billion.The DACA program doesn't go as far as the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would offer a path to citizenship."It's basically a patch," said Arlington school trustee Tony Pompa, who was an undocumented childhood immigrant. "But this is the most hope they've had since many can remember. Their entire lives have been led as if they don't know where they belong."

Ghio said the DACA act is buying time. It is not a pathway to citizenship.

"It's really a change in the enforcement procedures," Ghio said. "It is not amnesty, but it gives you a couple of years. The whole point of this is for people who really didn't have a choice. Their parents brought them here."

Students see it as a chance to better their immediate circumstances in a practical way.

"I'm actually one that's applying for it," said Edgar Castillo, 17, the senior class president at Sam Houston. "I've already filed my application so it's into processing now."

Castillo said his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico as a six-month-old baby. His sister, now a 9-year-old fourth-grader, was born in the U.S. and is a citizen. His parents filed for, and received, residency status prior to the year 2000.

"I personally have no fear [of deportation]," he said. "I'm sure I have some peers who worry that they'll hear a knock on the door, maybe their parents won't be home and they'll get taken," he said. "It all depends on your situation."

It's Castillo's second year at Sam. An avid soccer player, he transferred from a charter school to improve his game.

"Day to day you come to school where they teach you to do the right thing, and you can't," he said. "You have that sense of guilt. You want to be part of this country and you want to improve it."

Castillo said he cherishes his heritage but has no real connection to the land of his birth.

"This is actually called the Land of Opportunity," he said. "We came here for a better future just like our ancestors did, like everyone's ancestors did."

A lengthy process

Legal immigration can take up to 20 years to be approved, Ghio said. Still, some potential DACA applicants are hesitant to proceed.

"Some say, isn't this just a trick to give Immigration my address?" Ghio said. "But there's no reason now for them to arrest anyone."

And later?

"The truth is, we really don't know what happens in two years when this law goes away," he said.

Since it is a policy change and not a regulatory or statutory change, uncertainty exists about the future of DACA in a presidential election year, Ghio said.

"People are applying for it quickly before someone changes their mind," he said.

Some 40,000 DACA applications nationwide have been approved, Ghio said. As more applications are filed, the wait will become longer."This is an opportunity for a huge positive benefit to us all to begin the process of really fixing this immigration issue," Pompa said. "These children did not choose to come here illegally."

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram

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