Pittsburgh’s new immigrants: DACA life-changing for some immigrants' children

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals can keep them from being deported

This is one of an occasional series of Pittsburgh's recent immigrants -- the thousands of people from other countries who have flowed into the region over the past 40 years.

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When Jimmy was diagnosed with leukemia in November, he turned to an immigration lawyer.

Eleven years ago, Jimmy, who was 9, had been illegally shepherded across the U.S.-Mexico border. With his mother and 15 other migrants, Jimmy walked for two days and nights before reaching a house on the other side. They were given food, drink and new clothes at the house, from which they boarded buses to various destinations -- one group to New York, another to Pennsylvania, Jimmy and his mother to Michigan.

A Pittsburgh resident for 10 years, Jimmy, who asked that his full name not be used, has been unable to get a driver's license because of his undocumented immigrant status. With his recent diagnosis, he needs the license more than ever, so he can save himself the two-hour bus ride from his parents' home in Imperial to his appointments at the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside.

Under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012, Jimmy is among 1.7 million young people who qualify for deferred deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program grants eligible undocumented immigrants a temporary Social Security number, subject to renewal every two years, giving them access to opportunities such as a driver's license or work permit. In Pennsylvania alone, about 850 undocumented students graduate from Pennsylvania high schools every year.

Jeh Johnson, director of Homeland Security, announced in early June the renewal process for deferred action enrollment, and said those who did not apply for the program when it started can still do so. But several Republican congressmen are pushing Mr. Obama to end the program, saying it creates the perception that the U.S. has lenient immigration laws.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals affects more than just those who crossed the border as Jimmy did -- in Pittsburgh and across the country, individuals don't have legal papers for a range of reasons, from expired visas to faulty processing.

As a result, they're living illegally in the country that most of them call home.

Since filing his application with help from JBM Immigration Group, a Downtown law firm, Jimmy said he has been waiting and hoping for good news. As long as comprehensive immigration reform remains stalled in Congress, deferred action is his only chance for normalcy.

"In high school, my favorite subject was social studies," said Jimmy, who graduated from West Allegheny Senior High School in 2013. "You can ask me anything about the presidents, and I can tell you. I was in my school's junior ROTC program for two years, and I even wanted to join the armed forces, but you have to be a citizen or permanent resident to do that."

He paused and sighed.

"The United States is all I know."

Lost in transit

Twenty years ago, Fan's father brought her to Pittsburgh to save her life.

Born with a rare genetic condition known as Gaucher's disease, Fan, who also didn't want her last name used, would have stood little chance at survival in her native China, where treatment is almost nonexistent for the disease. The condition spreads fatty deposits throughout the body and causes severe anemia and joint pain. She landed in the United States when she was 12, armed with a tourism visa that granted her access to Pittsburgh's medical facilities.

Two months ago she was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the right hip, a form of bone loss and a complication of Gaucher's. She had hip replacement surgery last month and is now recovering.

Fan's tourism visa expired while she was in the U.S. By the time she had found a private elementary school to sponsor her for a student visa, it was too late.

"There are cases when [undocumented immigrants] really don't have a choice," Fan said. "I didn't choose to be in this situation."

Once an individual overstays her visa period, she cannot regain legal status. Because Fan and her father had only a limited knowledge of English, they were unaware of this stipulation and unknowingly became undocumented immigrants.

This kind of misunderstanding is not uncommon among immigrants who lack the language skills and resources necessary to navigate a complicated visa application process.

Lost in the mail

For the Koc family of Greenfield, who immigrated to the United States from Turkey on an H-1B work visa more than 10 years ago, a piece of lost mail led to their undocumented status.

While Bunyamin Koc submitted an application to renew the visa allowing him to work in the country as an engineer -- and to have his wife and three children here with him -- he said he neglected to include one piece of paperwork in his file. He received notice that he was no longer eligible for a visa because he had not met the renewal criteria.

According to the notice, he had received a letter informing him of the omitted paperwork, but he said the letter never came. Mr. Koc now works for Troy Granite, a countertop fabrication and installation company in Ross.

Mr. Koc's children, ages 13, 15 and 16, and Fan have all successfully applied for and received deferred action status. Fan filed her application immediately after the policy was announced in 2012, and obtained her paperwork the following January.

"It's been life-changing for me," she said. "I wasn't able to do anything with my life before."

Fan is a graduate of Penn State University, and her temporary Social Security number has allowed her to enroll in Duquesne University's master of business administration program after being out of school for six years. During this time, she worked under the table as a waitress and cashier.

At Duquesne, she has a tuition fellowship and completes internships.

"It's not permanent, but now I can drive; I can go back to school," she said. "Finally."


Inside the Kocs' living room are two couches and a tall, wooden bookshelf in one corner. Kneeling on the carpet, Mr. Koc rifled through a binder on the bottom shelf. It contained all the paperwork the family had accumulated since arriving in the United States -- all but the documents that would allow them to stay.

Mr. Koc and his wife, Asuman, have found themselves in a situation shared by many parents of deferred action children: While their kids are granted access to life in America, many face uncertainty over their own immigration status.

For Mr. and Mrs. Koc, this may soon change.

While the family was undergoing deportation proceedings in court, the Kocs' attorney, JBM Immigration associate Ashley Lively, successfully applied to halt the proceedings through prosecutorial discretion.

Based on a memo issued by the executive branch in 2011, prosecutorial discretion gives any law enforcement agency the leeway to decide when and how to enforce the law. In the case of immigration, this extends to the power to halt removal proceedings.

Generally, candidates for prosecutorial discretion must submit documents tracing the life they have built here, evidence that they are settled in America: property records, bank accounts and community contributions. They must also demonstrate through a criminal record check that they aren't a danger to the community; being the primary caretaker of a U.S. citizen minor or elderly person is a plus.

Mrs. Koc is pregnant with their fourth child, who will be the first one born on American soil. But despite his or her own citizenship, the youngest Koc will likely grow up in a household constantly struggling with the question of whether to stay or leave.

Prosecutorial discretion would grant Mr. and Mrs. Koc work permits and driver's licenses, allowing them to pull back part of the legal curtain that has defined their lives here. It does not, however, allow them to get green cards or apply for citizenship. And they must wrestle with a tough dilemma -- if they stay in the United States indefinitely, they may never be able to visit their native Turkey. The discretion does not include permission to travel.

"We are good, we are much better than we were before," Mr. Koc said. "But the way things are, we are stuck."

Zaynep, 16, the Kocs' oldest child, worries that the high tuition fees facing most undocumented college students will prevent her from continuing her education in America. The Pennsylvania DREAM Act (Senate Bill 713), which awaits further action on the floor, would allow undocumented immigrants who have graduated from Pennsylvania high schools to pay in-state tuition at state universities.

Currently, most of those students are subject to international fees -- costs that would be impossible for the Koc family to shoulder.

If she doesn't have access to affordable education after she graduates from high school, Zaynep said, she will likely return to Turkey.

Fan's deferred status allows her to travel abroad, but she has refrained because of the possibility that she could be turned away at U.S. customs on her way back.

She has not returned to China for almost 20 years, and because of visa complications on their own end, her parents can't visit her in Pittsburgh.

"I don't know when I'm going to see my parents again," Fan said.

'An incomplete relief'

The future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals largely depends on the next administration's approach to immigration policy. The program has faced particular scrutiny in recent weeks, coinciding with the surge of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children are expected to be apprehended at the border this year -- up from fewer than 40,000 in 2013.

Lawmakers attribute the influx to misconceptions about federal immigration policy, as the children's family members send them to the border in the hopes that they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. In a speech earlier this month, Mr. Obama said most of these children will ultimately be removed through deportation proceedings. The child migrants do not qualify for deferred action.

More than 30 Republican congressmen have signed a letter calling on Mr. Obama to end the deferred action program, but White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president would not consider rescindment.

Mr. Obama announced on June 30 that given the House Republicans' refusal to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he planned to take unilateral action to enact change.

This promise may be good news for the undocumented community, for whom deferred action has brought only partial respite.

"DACA is still an incomplete relief," said Sheila Velez Martinez, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. "What we would really like to see is a comprehensive immigration reform that not only takes care of the [undocumented children], but of the whole family."

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Coming Monday - For some “extraordinary” immigrants, there is a faster track to citizenship.

Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @yananw.

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