Maria Alvarez left Mexico when she was 4 years old. Her mother brought her to America because in Mexico, they had nothing. She went to school in Marshalltown and has lived here most of her life.
Despite being in this country through no fault of her own, until recently, her undocumented status would have gotten her deported, and likely prevented her from working.
She said despite what teachers and other adults tell children, many aspects of the American Dream are unavailable to people like her.
T-R PHOTO BY DAVID ALEXANDER
Local Hispanic activist Eren Sanchez, 23, recalls her feelings when she heard about the Secretary of Homeland Security’s announcement Friday evening in front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Linn Street. The decision makes youth like her eligible for deferred action, which would allow them to live and potentially work in the U.S. legally.
"You knew once you graduated high school that was it," Alvarez, 23, said. "There are moments you want to give up. You think 'nobody wants me here' ... It's a struggle within yourself."
Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, announced Friday that the government will grant millions of immigrants just like Alvarez deferred action provided they meet certain criteria.
Young people who can demonstrate they meet the criteria will now be eligible for a two-year deferment subject to renewal and can apply for work authorization.
So long as they have spent the last five years in the U.S., came to the country under the age of 16, have graduated high school, are currently in school or are an honorably discharged veteran, have never been convicted of a serious crime and are younger than 30, they qualify, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Press Secretary.
Joa LaVille, president of the steering committee for the Immigrant Allies, said although undocumented immigrants like Alvarez will now be allowed to stay in the country legally after coming here illegally, the word "amnesty" is not altogether accurate.
The word implies forgiving a deliberately perpetrated crime, she said. Alvarez, just like thousands of others, had no say in whether they came to America.
Immigration is a complex issue that needs national attention, she said. Most everyone agrees that polices need to be reformed. They simply disagree about what should be done. This announcement is a step in the right direction, she added.
"People treat the illegality of being undocumented like it's murder," she said. "It's so much more complex than just saying 'get in line' ... when you really put a face to an issue, you can't not care about it."
LaVille said a citizen is someone who takes part in their community, not just someone who has the requisite paperwork. Citizenship should be defined by action, not bureaucracy.
Sister Chris Feagan, of St. Mary's Hispanic Ministry, said deferred action is going to affect a lot of kids, giving them motivation to stay in school.
She said the church, 12 W. Linn St., will be available to help people with any necessary paperwork and connect them with legal services.
While immigration laws must be enforced, Napolitano said in a press released issued Friday, they must be done so in a sensible manner that recognizes the circumstances surrounding each case.
Joan Jaimes, outreach counselor at Marshalltown Community College, said the program will provide a huge boost to the economy.
"A lot of students who have obtained the education for the careers that are in high demand are not being allowed to work because they don't have the proper documentation," she said. "Many students in the country, and I am sure right here in Marshalltown, are being halted from achieving their dreams and their goals and being productive citizens of the community."
A lot of that inability has to do with a lack of access to financial aid, she said. This announcement will do a lot to boost moral of many students.
Alvarez, who also works with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said she is just finishing a criminal justice degree at MCC, but it has taken her longer than usual to graduate because she lacked access to scholarships and other financial aid.
She said she and her younger brother had to alternate semesters of college. She would go one semester, then her brother would go the next. Their mother couldn't afford to put two kids through college at the same time.
Pushing through with little hope that once she finished college she would even be able to work was difficult, she said.
"What's the point of coming to school and being in class?" she said. "This (deferred action) means we are going places ... That door is no longer locked. I can take those steps."
Alvarez said she wants to become involved in an organization that fights for the rights of everyone.
Both Alvarez and LaVille said accomplishments like deferred action is a result of activists shining a spotlight on the issue.
"Sometimes they shut the doors in our faces, but we just kept going. It just shows all the hard work we put into this and invested in this, we are getting somewhere," Alvarez said. "It doesn't matter if you are white or black or Latino, these issues affect all of us, and you have to be willing to stand up for them."
Those meeting the criteria for deferred action must live in the U.S. The DHS considers each request on a case-to-case basis, according to the release.
Although the stipulations of the deferred action process are effective immediately, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will likely see the project come into effect in the next 60 days.
For Alvarez and many others like her, 60 days is a short time to wait. She said she never would have gotten here if she had given up. That determination is a trait she learned from her mother - a woman who came to this county, unable to speak English and incredibly poor, pursuing a better life for her family.
"She would tell me 'stop complaining. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Push yourself and push your limits. Something is going to happen some day that is going to change things,'" she said. "Here we are today."