With a slight shake of her hips and a tentative laugh, Claudia Bermudez described dancing at the DPS office.
“That woman at the driver’s license office was pretty stern and everything, but I didn’t care,” Claudia said. “When she looked away, I just started dancing I was so happy.”
Her delight may surpass that of any newly-licensed teen. While driving is a privilege many take for granted, it was an impossibility for the 27-year-old until this year.
Claudia, who had been living in the United States illegally for almost 20 years, was granted deferred action in February through a program put in place by President Barack Obama last summer. Deferred action, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was devised to benefit young people who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children.
Claudia’s mother brought her to Texas in 1994. Since then, she describes a life in the shadows – striving to be successful but also working not to draw too much attention to herself or her family, in fear of deportation. Deferred action protects Claudia and other young adults like her from being deported, allowing them to apply for a Social Security number, a driver’s license and a work permit. Each person must meet a strict list of criteria (see sidebar), and if approved, the designation is good for two years, after which it can be renewed.
“I feel like this huge door just opened,” Claudia said. “(When I heard about deferred action), it was like a little light at the end of the tunnel. I just started bawling. I thought I would be living here in a shadow, not able to be me.”
Claudia and her husband, Maurilio Barnos, have a 2-year-old daughter, Valentina. Claudia is excited to be able to take her to the park or run to the mall without fear of being stopped.
“A lot of times we would just stay home,” she said. “I knew it was wrong driving (without a license), and if I had a choice then I would stay home. I told my husband now I want to be a PTO mom, and I want to be there for my daughter when she starts school.
“I want to be a soccer mom and take all the kids and do all the things normal people do.”
Deferred action has erased a fear that gnawed at her heart since she arrived in Texas as a 9-year-old in 1994. She, her mother and 2-year-old sister knew no one and spoke no English. They had also left behind Claudia’s two middle sisters and grandmother.
Determined to give her daughters a better life, their mother worked at a motel during the day and as a welder at night, leaving her young girls alone for hours on end – sometimes overnight, Claudia said.
“You know, on a summer night when all the other kids are out playing?” she said. “We would just stay inside … and close the blinds. We peeked through to see what everyone was doing.”
They didn’t dare step outside.
In fact, Claudia said her mother rarely ventured outside of Decatur.
“This was what we knew,” she said. “And she thought that if we left and got separated, something could happen. There was a fear of getting picked up by immigration. If you saw a cop, there you go, just praying and praying to all the saints.”
Two years after they arrived, her mother earned enough money to bring her other two daughters and their grandmother to Wise County.
All the girls enrolled in school, and although Claudia describes a lonely start, she gradually learned English, made friends and did well in the classroom.
But in ninth grade, she realized her path after high school would be different than that of many of her friends.
She and her best friend applied for Upward Bound, a college prep program, and their entrance test scores were similar.
“We both got a letter back and opened them at the same time,” she said. “Hers said ‘Congratulations,’ and mine said ‘We are very sorry but at this time we don’t have enough space.'”
But it wasn’t a lack of space. Her counselor explained the real reason she was rejected.
“Just tell me it’s because I don’t have papers,” she said. “Ever since that happened, I thought ‘I’m not even going to try.’ It’ll be the same response every time so why bother?”
She graduated from DHS in 2004. Previously, she had set her heart on being a teacher.
Elda Flores, a 2006 DHS graduate, also realized the consequences of her immigration status while in high school. As a 6-year-old, she came to Texas with her mother and started first grade in Decatur.
“I didn’t know it was wrong,” Elda said. She was just a little girl.
“It clicked when everyone started getting their driver’s licenses,” she said. “And you know when everyone is applying for college, we heard ‘everybody can go to college.’ People have no idea how hard it was.”
She became especially frustrated when classes like medical terminology and certified nurse’s assistant classes were offered – classes which would have helped her become a nurse – and she couldn’t enroll.
“I couldn’t get in, and I didn’t have a driver’s license and I thought ‘Why am I even here?'” she said. “I can’t do what I want to do.” Elda graduated high school 23rd out of 230 students, with 21 college credits. She started classes at Weatherford College and transferred to the University of North Texas in Denton, all the while knowing she wouldn’t be able to get a job afterward.
“Once you get past the better education, that’s it,” she said. Eventually she married her husband, Jesse, and they had daughter Jazlyn, who’s now 3. That’s when she quit school.
Although she had worked since age 16 and school was central to her life, it didn’t make sense to take time away from her family pursuing a degree that she couldn’t put to use.
It was a tough decision.
“I had to decide to be miserable or be happy,” she said. “My life changed after I got married and had my daughter … I had a family of my own, and I had other stuff to look forward to. I didn’t focus on the negative so much.”
Although her husband has a good job, she babysits and makes cakes to help make ends meet.
“It’s either that or working at a gas station, but they look down on you,” she said. “They don’t know how smart you are.”
She hopes to return to school one day, possibly to a two-year program.
“Now I will be able to go to school and have a career, and (the kids) will get to see that,” she said. “I want them to see that their mom can have a career, too.”
She’s also looking forward to having the freedom to travel with Jesse and the kids. They’re expecting a son in June.
But Elda also realizes deferred action doesn’t solve everything.
“This is something, but it’s temporary,” she said. She indicated she still feels like a second-class citizen, and acknowledges the possibility that, just as easily as the president put the program in place, another president could abolish it.
In August, the Pew Research Hispanic Center estimated that there were 1.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. eligible for the program and 770,000 more who will age into eligibility in the next few years.
Since U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services began accepting applications in August, 469,530 people have applied and 245,493 have been approved. The top country of origin was Mexico with 338,334 applications.
Most of the total applications, 128,412, have come from California with residents of Texas submitting 73,258. Applications have also been received from people living in New York, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, New Jersey and Colorado.
Although there are no numbers available for Wise County, there is no doubt that Claudia and Elda are not alone.
Claudia’s husband, Maurilio, is currently working to complete his GED so he, too, can apply for deferred action.
Although Claudia and Maurilio work to preserve their Mexican heritage in their home, they also have an appreciation for American culture and are raising their daughter to know and appreciate both.
“This is my home – in Decatur,” said Claudia. “I’m just so grateful. I love this country. I believe that if we would have stayed in Mexico, we wouldn’t be the people we are.”
Last week Claudia and little Valentina stepped from the shadows of their front porch and climbed into the family truck. Claudia can drive her daughter to the park, to doctor’s appointments or the grocery store now in confidence.
The world is a different place.
“Everything looks pink,” she said happily. “Now I feel like we’re living. Everything I did, I sacrificed, is worth it.”
TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR DEFERRED ACTION, A PERSON MUST:
- Have been born on or after June 16, 1981
- Have come to the United States before their 16th birthday
- Have continuously lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007
- Have been present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, and on every day since Aug. 15, 2012
- Not have lawful immigration status
- Be at least 15 years old. If a person is currently in deportation proceedings, has a voluntary departure order or have a deportation order, and are not in immigration detention, that person may request deferred action even if they’re not 15 years old.
- Have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a GED certificate, be an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or U.S. armed forces or be in school on the date the deferred action application is submitted
- Have not been convicted of a felony offense
- Have not been convicted of a significant misdemeanor offense or three or more misdemeanor offenses
- Not pose a threat to national security or public safety (The Department of Homeland Security has indicated this includes gang membership, participation in criminal activities or participation in activities that threaten the U.S.)
- Pass a background check
It costs $500 to apply.
Some applicants accrue additional costs if they employ an attorney to help them organize their application. Each item listed above requires documented proof. The process can be lengthy and time-consuming to collect and organize everything.
Lonnie Robin, an immigration attorney in Fort Worth, said that young people who pursue deferred action do so because that is the only status for which they’re eligible.
“Technically the government is saying, ‘We recognize you’re here unlawfully, so instead of sending you back we won’t pursue removal against you,'” he said. “You can work and have some degree of confidence in your future, and it’s renewable.”
*The list of requirements to be eligible for deferred action came from “Frequently Asked Questions: The Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” published by the National Immigration Law Center.