Undocumented student shares harrowing tale of deceit, survival

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by MARK WIGGINS and photojournalist DEREK RAZOR

KVUE News Austin

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 7:52 AM

AUSTIN -- Dozens lined up early Wednesday morning outside the Mexican Consulate in Austin, waiting to get papers necessary to apply for relief from deportation under President Barack Obama's new policy of deferred action.

"It's going to change my life a lot, especially with the work permit and everything else," said Nayli Perez, a University of Texas student who was brought to Texas illegally at the age of two.

Undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 can now apply for a renewable two-year permit, allowing them to work or go to school in the U.S. legally. Among the qualifying criteria, applicants must not have a criminal record and must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

Applicants must either be in school, have already graduated or be a military veteran in good standing. The application costs $380 plus an additional $85 for fingerprints and can be downloaded online and submitted by mail beginning Wednesday.

Demonstrators rallied at the University of Texas campus Wednesday afternoon to support the new policy. Carrying signs in support of the "DREAM Act," demonstrators called the deferred action program a step closer to their goal. Unlike the DREAM Act, the deferred action program does not provide a path to citizenship.

Before the rally, UT student Edilsa Lopez sat down with KVUE to share her story of life as an undocumented immigrant.

Born in Guatemala, Lopez was orphaned at the age of seven. Left in charge of a younger brother and two younger sisters, she recalls working the fields in order to keep her siblings fed. Life was difficult, she says, but it was about to get much more so.

"Whenever I was 13 somebody lied to me that my mom was calling me to the U.S.," said Lopez.

After agreeing to be smuggled into Mexico in the hopes of reconnecting with her mother in America, Lopez says the family was forcibly separated. Moving from house to house and coerced into doing work for her smugglers, Lopez said she was eventually taken deep into the desert, where she was left for dead with an injury to her leg. After five days without food or water, she was rescued by strangers. Afterward, things seemed to go from bad to worse.

"There was a guy who kind of said, 'Well I'll take care of you,' you know. But he actually didn't," Lopez said. "He took me to a house and he really tried to do bad things, so I fought against him and I escaped the house, and I found out that I was in Brownsville, Texas."

At times homeless, Lopez said kind families helped her get into public school, where she learned English and began studying in earnest. Graduating among the top of her class, Lopez was able to qualify for multiple scholarships but was required to disclose her immigration status.

Under Texas law, Lopez was able to qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Texas, which she attended on scholarship. She graduated this year with degrees in business administration and economics. Unable to get legal work in her field, Lopez said she earned money under the table through photography and construction jobs which included tiling floors and hanging drywall.

"Now I can plan my life. I can plan my things, to get a job," said Lopez. "I never imagined working and putting my degrees to actually work."

Lopez said her story is not unique. Like many in her position, she doesn't want to return to what she sees as an impoverished and corrupt region of the world that took advantage of her at every turn. She says she hopes to become a citizen, but is discouraged by the slow petition process that can take several years. Looking back, Lopez says, the trials that brought her to Austin were difficult, but she has discovered in herself a will to push forward and persevere.

"There were so many mean people," said Lopez. "God really was with me. I think I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for Him and if it wasn't for the curse that I had."

Many conservatives have criticized the president for using an executive order to bypass a Congressional vote, while at the same time some have endorsed similar guest worker programs such as that laid out in the 2012 state platform of the Republican Party of Texas. Although those in the program would be working legitimate jobs and paying taxes, some question the economic impact of between one and two million people entering the workforce.
 
"This undercuts the 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) wrote in a statement Tuesday. Calling the policy "unconscionable" considering the current unemployment rate. Smith also cited concern over the potential for fraud.

"While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants," Smith wrote.

Many who hope to qualify are afraid of fraud as well. Stories abound of immigration attorneys using the deferred action program to cheat unsuspecting clients. Many immigrant support groups have already begun a campaign to inform those who may be able to qualify of the rules and potential scams to avoid.

There's also the political nature of the policy shift and the timing of its announcement. In a heated election year, even those who qualify to avoid deportation for now know that their fortunes could change with the political winds.

"It's just really kind of exciting but also nerve-racking," said Perez. "You're taking a leap forward, but you don't know how long you're going to be so lucky for."

Many on both sides are waiting to see what's next.

CLICK THE FOLLOWING TO SEE ACTUAL FORMS: USCIS OFFICIAL PAGE

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