NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Sister Margaret Smyth of North Fork Apostolate in Riverhead.
Leti was one of hundreds of incoming freshmen to walk into Riverhead High School on the first day of school last Wednesday.
The 15-year-old dreams of going to college in Boston to become a teacher or social worker. She likes to play soccer and enjoys learning about plants and food in science class.
But the quiet, dark-haired girl is different from many of her peers: Leti, a bilingual Guatemalan native who followed her mother to America when she was 6 years old, is an undocumented immigrant.
Leti, whose real name has been withheld to protect her identity, was brought to the United States in 2004 by a family friend, four years after her mother immigrated illegally.
Since then Leti has learned English and studied in school, all while keeping her status here a secret.
But a controversial new government policy may give North Fork immigrants like Leti a chance to study at local colleges and earn money at jobs in town without worrying that they may be deported if caught.
One Hispanic outreach group has already seen hundreds inquire about the program.
The Obama administration’s deferred action executive order would allow young undocumented immigrants to remain in the country for two years, obtain jobs and pay taxes, as well as study at schools and universities — provided they meet certain conditions. Plans haven’t yet been made to determine what happens to the immigrants after two years.
Applicants must be at least 15 years old and no older than 30, according to government documentation. They must also have come into the United States before age 16 and must have lived in the country for the past five years.
To prove they came to America as children, the applicants must provide documentation such as school, medical or travel records showing they were in the country at that age, according to a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The immigrants must also be educated — either in school or with a GED diploma — or must be a honorably discharged member of the U.S. military.
An immigrant who has been convicted of a felony, a “serious” misdemeanor or three other lesser misdemeanors, or who poses a risk to national security, would be ineligible for the deferred action, the spokesman said, adding that new policy will affect more people than any previous measure of its kind.
While Leti and her mother are in the country illegally, Leti’s two younger siblings were born in America, making them legal citizens. Leti said it’s “weird” that her sister and brother are allowed to go on plane trips while she cannot leave.
Leti smiled as she talked about where she’d want to travel in the U.S.: Florida and Hollywood.
“[My sister] can travel,” she said. “It was kind of not fair.”
Leti said some of her close friends know about her immigration status, though most people in school don’t react strongly to the news that she is an illegal immigrant.
“When I tell them, they say, ‘I don’t care’ and keep going,” she joked.
Leti’s mother said she heard about the opportunity from reports on television. She said it was “very emotional” to find out her daughter might qualify.
“It’s a great help for these students to continue to study,” she said through a translator. Leti’s mother said the family pays taxes, but the policy would let her daughter get a job without worrying about whether she has the proper paperwork.
Leti’s mother said the policy would allow her daughter to become “another success in the American dream.”
Since the policy went into effect on Aug. 15, Sister Margaret Smyth at the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, a Catholic outreach group for North Fork Hispanics, said she’s seen a steady stream of immigrants, numbering in the hundreds, seeking more information about the deferred action program.
“Last Thursday we were jammed in here,” Sister Margaret said, adding that many want to learn more about what documentation is needed to apply and whether or not they would be eligible. On Monday, her office on Roanoke Avenue was filled with men and women, some of whom asked about the policy.
Some who come into the office, like Leti’s mother, do so on behalf of their children.
“Some of [the children] have been here for so long that they have no memories of their home country,” Sister Margaret said. “These kids are American.”
Many of the immigrants are currently attending school or trying to learn English, since they were put to work to help their families almost immediately after arriving in the U.S., Sister Margaret said.
She believes the children should be given a chance to work and study and not be punished for decisions she says they did not make.
“When you look at young people you want to give them a chance,” she said. “What we’re saying to begin is, ‘You can stay, you can develop something [that’s a] contribution.’ It comes back to the community.”
U.S. CIS has already received more than 72,000 applications for deferred action since Aug. 15, said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard.
But East End government officials said they haven’t seen the outpouring of interest that Sister Margaret described.
Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said that although roughly 1,200 people could be eligible for the policy across his district, only about 40 or 50 have come to his office. Mr. Bishop, who recently held an information session about the deferred action plan, said he believes many immigrants may be afraid to come forward to government representatives for fear of being deported.
Mr. Bishop said that would not happen, and a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed this week that the department does not share applicant information with the government’s enforcement wing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mr. Bishop said he supports the president’s plan, which he sees as a stop-gap measure to address immigration concerns while a longer-term solution is crafted. Government officials have not said what will happen after the two-year deferment period, though Sister Margaret hopes there will be some kind of renewal program.
Mr. Bishop said that while the immigration system is “flawed,” the government should focus its efforts on hardening the country’s borders and deporting immigrants who pose a threat to the public, not those who were brought to the U.S. when they were young.
“We have a population of young people who came here through no control of their own … yet our current law sort of relegates them to a life in the shadows,” Mr. Bishop said. “I’d like to think we’re a more tolerant country than to relegate to second-class status a little girl who came here at age 2.”
Yet the policy is not without controversy, with many in government criticizing the plan as a stop-gap measure that does little to solve the broader issues with illegal immigration.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a June speech that he would “put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the President’s temporary measure.”
“I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it easier,” Mr. Romney said. “And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner.”
Others in politics have taken issue with how the administration used an executive order to push the policy through after legislation called the DREAM Act, which offered a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who came here at a young age, failed in the U.S. Senate by a narrow margin.
Among them are Mr. Bishop’s Republican opponent Randy Altschuler, who criticized the executive order when it was announced in June, saying President Obama “sidestepped debate” on the topic by pushing the measure through.
Mr. Altschuler also said the president did so to curry favor with Hispanic voters.
“While I understand the predicament facing children who were brought to this country illegally through no fault of their own, President Obama’s unilateral decision to override U.S. law and effectively grant amnesty to nearly 1 million illegal immigrants less than five months before the election is political pandering at its worst,” Mr. Altschuler said in a statement. “No matter how contentious the process, [immigration] policy must be debated and determined in the United States Congress, not decided by the president in a meeting with his pollster.”
Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said the federal government has not come up with a long-term solution to tackle illegal immigration. But while he said he supports protecting the country’s borders, Mr. Romaine said he agreed with the new policy to defer deportation of young immigrants.
“I’m not an ideologue, I’m a pragmatist,” Mr. Romaine said. “These people are here, what are you going to do? What do we do with these kids who came here not of their own volition?”
The legislator said he believes there should be some compassion for young immigrants looking to learn and become a part of society.
“I agree, these people should not be here and we should solidify our borders, but we need a policy for people who are here,” Mr. Romaine said. “I feel bad for these people, I see the humanity in them.”
As for Leti, the process is just beginning. She has documentation to retrieve, forms to fill out and weeks and weeks left to wait for an answer. She hopes she will be approved, so she can start working to save money for college.
“I need it, and other people need it,” Leti said.