By Erin Delmore
“I told some of my friends about it, and they never even heard about it,” said Patricia Campos, legal assistant for Casa de Esperanza.
A startling number of unauthorized immigrants living in New Jersey are eligible to get temporary legal standing in this country, enabling them to work, drive and go to college. But by and large, they’re not applying.
“California, New York had fairly high rates of application. New Jersey, on the other hand, had one of the lowest application rates,” said Migration Policy Institute Senior Policy Analyst and Demographer Jeanne Batalova.
Around 53,000 people in New Jersey are eligible through DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — that is, the kids of unauthorized immigrants. But as of March, only 43 percent have applied, according to an August report by the Migration Policy Institute.
That’s 20 points less than the national average — less than New York, Texas and California — even though New Jersey harbors some of the greatest numbers of unauthorized youths.
“It feels [like] home. I went to high school, middle school, graduated, you know, but I do want to finish what I started and make sure I accomplish something,” said Antonio Garcia.
Garcia’s family came to the U.S. from Mexico on his 13th birthday. He’s been here for half his life.
“When I was doing music, too, I went to a record label and the same thing happened. ‘We can’t sign you because you don’t have papers.’ Same thing when I went to get a drivers license. ‘We can’t give you anything because you don’t have papers.’ Even in relationships, you know, girlfriends, you know, after a couple years, we want to go out. We want to go somewhere else outside the U.S. So, I mean, I can’t,” Garcia said.
Garcia isn’t eligible for DACA. His DUI charge automatically disqualifies him. He says he hopes to apply when the charge is expunged in December. For others, not graduating high school is a barrier. Still more can’t afford the nearly $500 application fee — that’s before the hundreds or even thousands of dollars private lawyers can charge.
Chia-Chia Wang says New Jersey doesn’t have enough free and low-cost legal services and points to an awareness gap, especially outside the Latino community.
“Some people don’t know and some people trust information or words from the people that they know or within their community. And when you look at Asian populations, or Asian immigrant communities, it’s 23 percent for Koreans, and then it’s zero percent for Chinese,” Wang said.
Immigration lawyers and advocates told NJTV News a lot of applicants come from “mixed-status families”. They harbor concerns about “outing” a relative by raising their own hand, that is, if they even take the leap in the first place.
“I think there’s also a basic fear of letting immigration know where you are. Because once you apply, they’ve got an address, they’ve got a name, they’ve got a number, they have a face, they have biometrics, your fingerprints, they have everything they need to deport you,” said Casa de Esperanza Director Joyce Antila Phipps.
DACA doesn’t grant a path to citizenship or permanent legal status, leaving eligible people wondering, what happens to President Obama’s signature immigration law once he’s out of office?
“I’m scared. I think everyone in my situation is afraid of what’s going to happen in November and I hope that another miracle happens and Hillary’s elected,” Campos said.