At home where you legally do not belong

2013-03-22 16:37:16 GMT2013-03-23 00:37:16(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Christine Schiffner

NEW YORK, March 22 (Xinhua) -- Every weekday morning Duvan gets on a bus, leaving his lower-class neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens borough to continue his training as an emergency medical service worker.

Since volunteering at a local hospital as a teenager and seeing cardiogram images of a beating heart, the 20-year-old, who declined to give his full name, has worked towards his dream of learning a profession that could save lives.

"Where I live, a lot of kids make bad choices, waste the chances they could have. But I want to make my mom proud, make something out of myself here in the United States," he said.

Duvan was born in Colombia. His mother brought him to the United States when he was 10 years old. He has spent most of his childhood in New York -- gone to American schools, speaks English almost accent-free yet lives in a legal grey area as the country's current immigration laws do not allow him to apply for permanent residence and U.S. citizenship.

He is one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who for years have lived in the United States illegally. Like most immigrants staying in the country without proper work or residence permits, Duvan entered the country on a tourist visa and never returned home.

"It's a huge gap between what is happening on the ground and our current laws," said Alina Das, a supervising attorney at the New York University School of Law. She has advised many undocumented immigrants trying to legalize their status in the United States. "Millions of people here in the country are struggling to have themselves recognized as Americans. These are young people who have been living here for decades and what they are seeing is a broken system," she said.

Acknowledging the weaknesses of current immigration laws, the administration of President Barack Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June 2012. Under the memorandum, children and young adults who live in the United States illegally but attend school here and have not been convicted of a crime are now able to apply for a two-year grace period. Upon approval, the children will receive a social security number and are subsequently able to apply for college.

So far, about 450,000 applications have been filed, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Critics of Obama's push for an overhaul of the current immigration law emphasize that any reform must entail a strengthening of border security and a crackdown on criminals who live in the United States illegally.

"It's politically impossible to talk about immigration reform without talking about border security. But the reality is, if you really want to stop unauthorized immigration, the real way is to create a mechanism for legal immigration," Alina Das says, underscoring the need for reform.

So far, Deferred Action is only a bridge to comprehensive immigration reform. In 2001, new immigration legislation dubbed the "Dream Act" was first introduced in the U.S. Senate but was never passed.

Hope for the reintroduction of an updated version of the act is increasing this year, especially since Obama has made immigration reform a top priority of his second-term agenda.

"A lot of children find out that they have no legal status in the United States when they are nearing their high school graduation and are planning to apply for college," Tara Pinkham, an attorney of the Church World Service explained. Her organization helps young adults to apply for Deferred Action.

"These kids are very energetic, very motivated and very committed to contributing to society," she said.

Kay, 22 years old, who also declined to give a full name, arrived in the United States from Jamaica at the age of 10. With Pinkham's help, she was able apply for Deferred Action and entered college. Kay still remembers how terrified she was when she first found out that she may not be able to go to college because she was living in the country illegally.

"There were times, when I will be on the subway or see police officers, I freeze because somehow I thought everybody knew that," she says.

Duvan also recently received his Deferred Action approval and will start working as an emergency service worker after graduating in May. He hopes to some day be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. "I don't want to be a low-class citizen. My mom brought me here for a reason, she wants me to be successful," he says.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators has announced it will deliver a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform to Congress after the Easter holiday recess in early April.

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