In Harlem, Seeking Temporary Relief from Immigration Woes

On a recent Friday afternoon Yvonne Diop arrived at Harlem’s Masjid Aqsa with a stack of fliers and waited outside as members of the mosque’s diverse West African community flowed out from afternoon prayers. This has become routine for Ms. Diop, who wants to educate fellow West African parents about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

President Obama introduced the executive order on June 15. Under DACA, qualifying undocumented youth will receive relief from removal processes (deportation) and will be eligible to apply for work authorization. 

“Sometimes the parents say they wish the action were broader — that it included them as well,” said Ms. Diop, who is Senegalese and works as a paralegal at a private firm.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) outlines that to be eligible, applicants must have arrived in the country before their 16th birthdays, but have been younger than age 31 as June 15, 2012. They also must be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or be honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces or Coast Guard. Furthermore, applicants may not have felony nor “significant misdemeanor” convictions.

Private law firms and legal-aid providers throughout New York City are working to guide undocumented youth and their parents through the application process. On September 20 African Services Committee, a Harlem-based organization, hosted a legal clinic for hopeful DACA applicants. African Services Committee received a New York City Immigration Coalition grant to assist at least 200 people in the process, but individuals are responsible for the $465 application fee.

Attorneys found 34 qualified candidates out of the 38 young people who attended. “This is exciting because most of the time in immigration law you’re telling people they aren’t eligible for something,” said Chitra Aiyar, a staff attorney.

The multi-service organization, which primarily serves Francophone African immigrants, plans to host additional events and spread awareness about DACA through local media outlets in the weeks to come, according to communications director Stephanie Kaplan.

Up to 1.76 million undocumented youth may qualify for deferred action, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank. Mohammed, who wished to withhold his last name, arrived as a 13-year-old in 2002 and now awaits an answer from USCIS. He hopes that deferred action will allow him to finally use the biomedical engineering degree he earned last year, but worries that employers will prefer candidates with green cards or permanent residency. “The government fell short [with DACA], but we have to take a step. We can’t not do something,” he said via phone.

Deferred action is not a novel tool (it is sometimes requested by HIV-positive individuals who fear persecution in their home countries), nor is it a permanent solution for undocumented youth. If a case is deferred, the individual must reapply after two years. When announcing the executive order in June, President Obama admitted DACA was only a “temporary stopgap measure”.

He went on to reaffirm his support for the Dream Act, bi-partisan federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented high-school graduates and those with GEDs. Furthermore, it would allow qualifying undocumented youth access to federal work study grants and student loans. The Dream Act passed the U.S. Senate in December 2010 but did not receive the required 60 House votes.

“We were originally hoping to get the Dream Act passed, as it would have been a permanent solution to the crisis that young students have been facing,” said Bakary Tandia, a case manager and policy advocate at African Services Committee.

In response to the Dream Act’s congressional defeat, undocumented youth in New York 
spearheaded the New York Dream Act in March 2011. Operating as the New York State Youth Leadership Council, they introduced the legislation with sponsor Bill Perkins, the Democratic state senator whose 30th district includes Harlem’s West African neighborhoods.

“We need to not deal with this situation [DACA] as just an event,” said Mr. Tandia, “but as an opportunity to empower the DREAMers and give them a taste of advocacy. This did not fall from the sky. It’s the result of concrete, tangible efforts from all communities working together.”

Columbia Law School volunteers Charles Alvarez and Nora Markard at African Services Committee's DACA clinic. (Photo courtesy of Chitra Aiyar.)