Juan Gallegos earned private scholarships to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He passed his classes, even walked in cap and gown across the stage with the graduating class of 2011.
But the 23-year-old purposely didn't hand in a senior project that would release his diploma — thinking an enrolled college student would be less likely to be deported if his illegal immigration status were ever exposed.
His anxiety lessened Friday after President Barack Obama announced a new policy to stop deporting and begin granting work permits to those under age 31 who came to the United States before they were 16 and have since led law-abiding lives.
“This is huge,” said Gallegos, whose parents brought him and two brothers from Mexico to central Nebraska when he was 12 years old. “But I'm still looking to see what happens next — not completely calling it a victory.”
Friday's dramatic election-year step by Obama — a major shift that addresses a top demand of many Latino voters — would affect up to 800,000 young immigrants who have lived under the threat of deportation. Federal officials did not release any state-by-state breakdown.
Estimates put the number of undocumented immigrants of all ages in Nebraska at about 45,000 and in Iowa about 75,000.
By bypassing Congress, which has been in a longtime stalemate over any immigration policy overhaul, the directive partly and temporarily achieves the goals of the DREAM Act, a never-passed bill aimed at establishing a path to citizenship for youths who had been brought the U.S. illegally as young children and went on to college or served in the military.
The administration's new policy, however, stops short of providing permanent relief or path to a long-term status.
Still, the announcement set off a partisan hail of differing opinions in Congress and beyond.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, decried what he said amounted to amnesty that sidesteps Congress.
“The American people have rejected amnesty because it will erode the rule of law,” King said. “In much the same way, I believe the American people will reject President Obama for his repeated efforts to violate the constitutional separation of powers.”
Lourdes Gouveia, an immigration scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the move clearly was politically motivated, but she called it refreshing that “electoral politics is pushing candidates to support a move toward sensible immigration policies.”
Gouveia said the count of possible beneficiaries in the Midlands will be relatively small, “but their full participation in the local economy and society is particularly important given the state's aging population and problem of brain drain.”
As news spread rapidly in immigrant circles, Midlands immigration attorneys fielded phone calls and pored over files to identify and call clients who qualify. They cautioned that immigrants should be careful not to be duped by people offering legal services they are not qualified to provide.
“It's a good day in the USA,” Lincoln attorney Shirley Mora James sang out loud. “I've been inundated with dreamers wanting clarification, and they were crying. It made me cry.”
The legal status of young people brought to the U.S. illegally has been a hot-button topic in Nebraska for years, especially since the Nebraska Legislature enacted an in-state tuition law for immigrants six years ago.
Some politicians continue to try to repeal the law, passed over a gubernatorial veto. It allows undocumented immigrants to attend public institutions at in-state tuition rates if they graduated from a Nebraska high school, have lived in the state three years, and pledge to seek citizenship. Last year, 38 NU students used the law.
But supporters always maintained that the in-state tuition law did little without the potential to legally work or pursue full-fledged citizenship, as outlined in DREAM Act legislation.
Take the situation of Quetzalli Pliego as an example.
Her parents brought her illegally to Nebraska from Mexico when she was 12. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from a local college in 2010, but has not been able to get a job in her field of legal studies.
Now 23, Pliego helps her mom clean houses and is active as a volunteer and advocate for Latino and immigration matters.
“There are times I am so stressed out,” she said. “It's very frustrating not to be in the career you've worked so hard at.”
Pliego's siblings face similar circumstances: A sister graduated last year from a local university, a brother is studying to be a doctor at another campus and the youngest is in high school.
While Pliego sees hope in Friday's announcement, opponents of the Obama policy say it is an offense to American-born people seeking jobs.
“President Obama thwarted the will of Congress and shunned the 20 million under- and unemployed Americans,” said Roy Beck, president of the Washington-based immigration enforcement group NumbersUSA.
Beck said Congress more than once rejected DREAM Act proposals “in part to help unemployed workers born here or who came here legally.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the president “has put election-year politics above responsible policies” and Americans deserve to know how the program will be funded.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., called the new policy another example of shoring up the president's political base. “This is a serious, emotional subject that needs to be addressed in a way that is well thought out and does not encourage illegal immigration.”
In defending the policy, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that immigration laws must be enforced in a “strong and sensible manner.” She said they are not designed to “remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language.”
Obama called the policy “a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”
Under the administration plan, undocumented immigrants will be immune from deportation if they:
» Were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 and are now age 30 or younger.
» Have been in the country at least five continuous years and were present on the date of the change.
» Have a clean criminal history, have graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or have served in the military.
Those who qualify can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years and renewable after that.
To Gallegos, whose entrepreneurial venture fizzled because of his status, the thought of a work permit was especially good news.
He was able to start his own small business designing graphics and building websites, but couldn't get far without, for example, a driver's license. He said it was difficult to conduct business without full access to banking and loan services.
Gallegos accepted a summer internship position in Colorado, but he hopes to return to Nebraska to work.
“I can see that maybe one day I can create jobs for others who need them,” Gallegos said. “The possibilities are endless.”
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