PROVIDENCE — For the last few years, since learning that had entered the United States illegally as a young child, Luis Lucario has lived with the fear that at any time, he could be discovered and deported back to Mexico, separating him from his family here.
The 19-year-old is but one of a population of young, undocumented immigrants living in the United States estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands.
With the enactment of a new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy, he is facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his life, and he’s facing it with a broad, beaming smile.
Although in divulging his identity and status to the federal government he ultimately could risk being deported back to Mexico, Lucario, 19, welcomes the opportunity the new policy provides: temporary legal status and employment authorization for eligible young people meeting certain age, residency and legal criteria.
“Throughout my whole life it never occurred to me that I wasn’t an American citizen,” says Lucario, who has no memory of the trek he made as a toddler across the desert border into Arizona with his mother, who was in search of a better life for her son.
Through a translator, Luis’s mother spoke of how the two had lived in their native Mexico City. A single mother, she had been forced to leave her young son with her parents during the week while she worked long hours outside the city in order to support him. With her eyes welling with tears, she recalled how the two had fled Mexico so that she could finally spend more time with her son and try to give him a chance at a better life.
In his teens, Luis was surprised to learn that he was in the country illegally, and therefore unable to apply for a job or to continue his education when he graduated high school.
“Personally, I feel like I’m an American,” says Lucario, who noted that no one ever questioned his nationality as he was growing up, and that his friends were truly surprised to eventually learn the truth about his past.
Lucario, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist, Pawtucket, speaks English fluently, and Spanish much less so. In an ironic twist, the Mexican native admits to often turning to Google in order to translate some words into Spanish when speaking with his mother.
Known as Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the immigration policy was created in June under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama.
The executive order gives undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 a chance to remain here to obtain employment and an education. It went into force on Aug. 15, with tens of thousands turning out at immigration offices across the country to sign up.
While U.S. Immigration officials have made it abundantly clear that the new policy provides no path to citizenship, it does allow those who qualify to legally remain in the country without fear of deportation.
“Some people say it’s a great risk, but they don’t mind applying for Deferred Action because it’s a great opportunity for them,” said Luis Peralta, the lead case manager for the Office of Immigration Services in the Diocese of Providence.
The staff has also been visiting area parishes to inform individuals about the new policy and invite them to avail themselves of diocesan assistance with the application process.
“We shared information with about 150 people at Holy Spirit Parish in Central Falls, and more than 30 attended a second presentation at Scalabrini Dukcevich Center in Providence,” said Peralta.
According to Stella Carerra, coordinator of Refugee and Immigration Services for the diocese, the office has been inundated with calls for appointments from those needing help to navigate the maze of paperwork necessary to help make their dream of living and working legally in the U.S. a reality — and to keep families together.
The staff has been meeting with about 40 clients per week since the policy took effect, extending their office hours to nights and weekends to accommodate the demand.
They are finding that for many young immigrants that they are assisting, the United States is the only country they have ever known.
One young applicant, who only wished to be identified by his first name, Hector, said he was elated that the new policy would allow him the opportunity to apply for college so he can study computer engineering.
Like several of the other applicants receiving assistance in filling out paperwork and registering to receive representation at immigration hearings from the diocese, Hector said he had no regrets, whatever the outcome of the process.
“When I found out, I didn’t think twice about applying,” said Hector, who lives with his mother and sisters.
He was 11 months old when his uncle guided both he and his mother across the border to start new lives.
“We came walking in to Arizona,” he said.
Who can apply for Deferred Action?
Those who wish to apply for Deferred Action under the new immigration policy must meet the following criteria:
— Applicants must have lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and have been present in the country on June 15, 2012, the day immigration officials announced the new policy.
—At the time of application, they must be at least 15, but not more than 30 years old, must currently attend school, have graduated high school or have earned a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard or Armed Forces.
—Also, applicants must never have been convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanor crimes, or a single “significant” misdemeanor.