At a workshop Saturday, Cornell Law School professors and students worked to assist undocumented youth applying for deferred action — a status that, if granted, may allow thousands of undocumented immigrants living in upstate New York to temporarily be protected from deportation.
Under the policy, which was announced on June 15, undocumented individuals who can prove that they came to the U.S. before they were 16 years old, have a clean criminal record and satisfy other requirements will be able to stay in the country for at least two years.
The law school’s initiative was a response to a “real need in the community,” according to Prof. Susan Hazeldean, law, who estimated that as many as 2,500 young adults in the area could qualify for President Barack Obama’s deferred action policy.
If their application is approved, undocumented students will also be able to work legally and apply for a driver’s license, according to Hazeldean.
“This is potentially a chance for them to come out of the shadows and really live a full life,” Hazeldean said.
For the estimated 15 to 30 undocumented students at Cornell, the promises behind Saturday’s workshop — and the hope it raised for their future — was a long time coming.
As Obama announced the deferred action policy this summer, Adrian Palma ’13 was moved to tears. Palma said he knew the announcement was the news that many of his undocumented friends had sought for years: “to finally be able to live in this country without fear.”
Aside from worrying about the possibility of deportation, many undocumented students also struggle to pay tuition because their immigration status makes them ineligible for federal aid or loans, Palma said. Recognizing these barriers to financial assistance, he added, the Cornell DREAM Team –– a student organization supporting undocumented students at the University –– had been trying to establish a work-study program to help these students support themselves.
But with Obama’s policy –– and the assistance of lawyers working pro-bono such as the ones at the workshop Saturday, –– many of these students will be able to apply for a work visa, which Palma hopes will lessen the financial obstacles they face while on campus.
The struggles of undocumented students — coupled with the uncertainty of the deferred action policy — make it increasingly more crucial that the University continue to fight for undocumented students, according to several organizers of the workshop.
Cristina Quiñones-Betancourt law said that she felt compelled to help out at Saturday’s workshop in part because she has worked as a volunteer tutor for undocumented youth in Los Angeles, Calif. — an experience she said allowed her to glimpse the isolation that many such young adults cope with.
“I feel like a lot of times, undocumented immigrants feel like they’re not being really treated like people — that they’re just being judged about whether they have documents or not,” Quiñones-Betancourt said. “I think it's important to reach out to them and let them know that they’re real people — that they are important.”
Tamara Hoflejer law, another student who assisted at the workshop, said “it’s our duty as students to give back.” Because some undocumented youth have been swindled by individuals posing as legitimate lawyers, Hoflejer said it is also critical to make sure undocumented students looking to apply for deferred action are not misled.
“We really want to make sure that they aren’t taken advantage of in this situation because they are really, really vulnerable,” Hoflejer said.
The vulnerability of undocumented youth, who risk deportation by staying in the U.S., has led many to express fear about exposing their status to the government, even for the deferred action program, Hazeldean said.
But Hazeldean noted that Obama has tried to ameliorate this concern by stating that his administration will keep all information strictly confidential unless an applicant is denied on criminal grounds, lies on their deferred action application or is a threat to national security.
With the presidential election just weeks away, Hazeldean noted that another concern some undocumented youth have raised is that the deferred action policy could be revoked should Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney be elected.
However, Hazeldean said, “as a practical matter, I think it’s very unlikely people who do not have a criminal background will be a priority [for deportation], even if there’s a change in administration.”
The deferred action program and its potential to allow immigrants to work legally may mean the difference between staying at Cornell and having to drop out altogether for some undocumented students. In February, Eric Cheon ’12, an undocumented student, said he faced a grim truth: possibly having just one week left at Cornell.
Saddled with $10,000 in outstanding tuition from the Fall 2011 semester, Cheon was told that if he did not pay off the debt by Feb. 24, he would no longer be allowed to enroll at the University. Ineligible for federal financial aid or loans as an illegal immigrant, Cheon worked 30 to 40 hours a week to try to keep up with his expenses.
Faced with a ticking clock, on Feb. 14, Cheon launched a fundraising campaign to fight to stay at Cornell.
Community members rushed to his aid. Students banded together, posting fliers on street lights, Thurston Bridge and the doors of Day Hall asking for donations. Alumni donated money and left messages for Cheon on his website.
A little more than a week later, Cheon received a call at work: He had raised the $10,000 and was going to be able to finish his last semester at Cornell.
Although Cheon received aid by speaking openly about his status as an undocumented student, he is one of few who have dared to do so. It is uncertain how many other Cornellians have faced — or currently find themselves in — Cheon’s situation.