Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Dreamers' deal a roll of the dice

By Ruben Navarrette, Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed September 26, 2012
Bolivian Diego Mariaca, center, with his mother, fills out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals paperwork in Washington, D.C.
Bolivian Diego Mariaca, center, with his mother, fills out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals paperwork in Washington, D.C.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Young would-be 'Dreamers' can apply for legal stay in U.S. if they meet criteria
  • This gives undocumented people brought to U.S. as children a two-year work visa
  • Ruben Navarrette: It's a high-stakes gamble because you give out personal information
  • Navarrette: People fear if Romney wins or even Obama, the program could be revoked

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Imagine what it must be like to be born in one country but only know another, to be labeled "illegal" but feel 100% American, and to be asking for special dispensation from a government that has shown a flair for arresting and deporting people just like you.

"Samuel" doesn't have to imagine this life. He's too busy living it.

The recent high school graduate is one of about 82,000 Dreamers who opted to roll the dice on a new government program that promises temporary relief for young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, have no criminal record and are pursuing higher education.

They're called Dreamers because they might have qualified for legal status under the Dream Act if the bill hadn't died in the Senate in December 2010 when 36 Republicans and 5 Democrats voted against cloture.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Samuel agreed to talk to me, but only if I agreed not to reveal his name or give out too much personal information about him or his parents.

Opinion: 'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth

Ah yes, the parents. If there's an illegal immigrant who was brought here by his parents, there is a good chance that his parents are undocumented as well. And here the government -- the same agency that carries out deportations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- is asking you to hand over your personal information, including your address, where agents might find you and your parents and haul you all away.

Samuel graduated from high school with honors a few months ago, and now he's in a state of suspended animation. He can't enroll in college, because he can't afford the cost of out-of-state tuition. Unlike many of his friends, he doesn't have a job. But it isn't because he doesn't want to work. The problem is that he doesn't have a Social Security number or a driver's license. He's stuck. He can't go forward, and he can't go backward.

Samuel's parents brought him to the United States from Mexico as a child. This is where he was raised, and he can't imagine living anywhere else.

"This is the only country I've known all my life," he told me.

He dreams of getting a driver's license, getting a job, going to college, attending medical school, perhaps one day becoming a doctor. But, all his plans are written in sand. In Samuel's life, nothing is certain.

Nothing, that is, but the two or three page application he filled out to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It was, for him, an easy decision. He had waited a long time for a chance like this. And he quickly seized the opportunity. That was probably a smart thing to do. Deferments could be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. He is supposed to receive a response in the mail in the next few weeks.

Radio: Undocumented students in their own words

The Deferred Action program, in the universe of immigration enforcement, falls somewhere between a leap of faith and a crapshoot. If granted temporary relief, applicants can apply for a two-year work visa. There's no direct path to permanent legal status or U.S. citizenship, and the deferment can be revoked at any time. Meanwhile, the federal government -- which previously didn't know you existed, and you liked it that way -- has opened a file, taken your fingerprints and collected all your information.

It's not a very good deal. But, for undocumented youth, it's the only deal on the table. So far, there are few takers. The 82,000 who have submitted applications are just 7% of the estimated 1.2 million people who are eligible for the relief. To qualify, an applicant has to meet certain criteria: be under the age of 31, brought to the United States before the age of 16, have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; no criminal record, in school or graduated high school, or a military veteran.

According to immigration lawyers I've spoken to, who have been fielding calls from Dreamers who have lots of questions, some would-be applicants worry that Mitt Romney could win the election; the Republican will not say whether he would sustain the deferment. All he has said is that we need a permanent solution and that he would replace the program with a better one. In June, Romney told a gathering of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that he would "put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure."

What does that mean? No one knows.

But, according to the lawyers, other would-be applicants are just as worried about the possibility of an Obama victory. Which Obama will show up in his second term: the one who proposed the solution, or the one whose excessive deportation policies created the problem?

During a recent forum sponsored by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, Obama said he announced the new policy because, as he met with young people from around the country, he concluded that it wasn't "fair or just for us to have them suffering under a cloud of deportation."

That's a nice sentiment, Mr. President. But guess what. You're the one who created the cloud by deporting a record 1.4 million people in about four years.

That is what happens when a bureaucracy goes overboard. It is a record to be ashamed of. So, if Obama is re-elected, do things get better for the undocumented or worse? No one knows.

Meanwhile, Samuel is aware of the risk. What really drove it home, he said, was when his mother, who is also undocumented, had to take him to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to fill out the application. He worried something might happen to her, that someone might question her, that she might give the wrong answer.

What about him? Wasn't he worried about putting himself in jeopardy? Here he is walking into the jaws of the beast, so to speak, right into the office of the very agency that is breaking all deportation records under this president. Wasn't he afraid that he was making a mistake?

"There's always that thought in the back of your mind," he said. "Because you're giving over all this information to these people who have total control over whether you get to stay here or not. It was a little nerve-racking, but we got through it. And now we're just waiting and hoping for the best."

Nerve-racking is right. A lot of good people are putting it all on the line. This is a high-stakes game. It had better not be rigged.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT