FRESNO, Calif. -- When 17-year-old Alondra Esquivel needs to get from her rural central California home to classes at Fresno State University 20 miles away, she must rely on rides from her relatives or her boyfriend.
Most Californians her age can drive. But Esquivel, a college freshman, was brought illegally to the United States from Mexico when she was 7. And California has denied driving privileges to immigrants lacking legal status since 1993.
"Without a license ... I have to depend on others to do the basic things," said Esquivel, who lives in rural Parlier, Calif., has classes at the college four times a week in Fresno. "It's a big inconvenience."
But Esquivel soon could get driving privileges: She is one of an estimated million eligible for a new federal program that temporarily defers deportation and grants work permits to people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. California has the largest number of potential applicants.
The new immigration policy has brought to the forefront the long-running and bitter debate over whether illegal immigrants should have access to driver's licenses. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that each state could determine whether to issue licenses or extend other benefits to young immigrants who qualify for the deferred status.
Some states, such as Oregon and Georgia, have announced that they will grant driving privileges to those eligible for the new program. Others, such as Arizona and Mississippi, have vowed to deny them.
California legislators this month approved a bill that would allow an estimated 450,000 eligible young immigrants in the state to use the federal work permits at the Department of Motor Vehicles as proof of lawful presence in the country. The bill is now headed to the governor.
For young people like Esquivel, foreign-born but steeped in America's language and lifestyles, the single administrative policy at the federal level, coupled with a state decision, could spell a life-changing moment – transforming school and work opportunities, daily nuisances and even social lives.
In California, where the automobile is king and car-culture dominates, the change could be most profound. Nearly inaccessible without a car, the state is famous for its freeways, streets lacking sidewalks and spotty or nonexistent public transportation. Driving is more than a practical necessity for Californians: it's a birthright.
Illegal immigrants in California who can't drive face a long series of daily inconveniences and calculated risks. Some drive without a license, unable to find another way to get to work or school. Others depend on family, friends and co-workers for rides.
It's especially hard on young people like Esquivel, who was raised in the U.S., but has had to miss out on the quintessential American rite of passage. She got top grades at Parlier High School, earning a merit scholarship to attend college, and plans to become an elementary school teacher. But at an age when getting behind the wheel seems pivotal, Esquivel can't drive to the mall or to see her friends, not to mention to school or work.
"Sometimes I feel like going out, but I can't really do that," she said.
Esquivel was smuggled by relatives through a border checkpoint in a car with her younger sister – an experience she barely remembers.
In high school, she watched classmates get driver's licenses and cars as soon as they turned 16. Esquivel and a few others could not apply because of their legal status.
"It was hard," she said. "I felt left out. They were able to do things, go places, and I couldn't."
Parlier, population 14,500, has little in the way of public transportation, stores or services. Residents drive virtually everywhere – to get to work, grocery shopping, to the doctor and to church.
Esquivel's parents, who pick grapes, olives and other crops in nearby fields, don't have time to drive her places and have not allowed Esquivel to drive without a license, because it's too dangerous, she said.
"If I get stopped, I could get deported," she said. "Things like that worry them."
Numerous bills to grant licenses to those without legal status in California have failed or been vetoed by several governors over the past decade.
Still, the commute to college has proved a challenge. Family members have to wait for hours while Esquivel is in class. And while the young woman's boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, also studies at Fresno State, their schedules don't coincide.
Her parents told her she might soon have to drive on her own, which fills Esquivel with dread. For the past month, she has occasionally sat behind the wheel with a relative in the passenger seat, in lieu of driving lessons.
Esquivel, who is in the process of applying for the new immigration program, hopes a license will come with it. To benefit, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, were younger than 31 as of June 15, have been living in the country at least five years, are in school or graduated, and have not been convicted of certain crimes.
Young immigrants who qualify won't get permanent legal residency or a path to citizenship, but will receive a work authorization card and a Social Security number.
"I'm really hoping the law that allows us to drive will pass," Esquivel said. "It would be a great relief for me."
Critics of the new immigration program say granting licenses to young immigrants like Esquivel would reward and accommodate illegal immigrants.
"We're already paying for the costs of illegal immigration. Why should we pay for additional benefits?" said Bob Dane, spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington D.C. "The driver's license is a breeder document which opens up a full spectrum of rights and privileges" such as access to banking accounts, credit cards and mortgages.
But immigrant advocates say denying licenses to people approved under the new immigration program is illogical.
"This is a common sense issue," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the Los Angeles based National Immigration Law Center. "These are young people who will have valid work authorization and Social Security numbers. They will need to drive to school, to work, to medical appointments. From a policy perspective, granting them licenses makes sense."
For Esquivel, a license would also mean fulfilling another wish: driving 200 miles north to Sacramento to visit grandparents she has not seen for years.
Follow Gosia Wozniacka on Twitter at (at) GosiaWozniacka
Related on HuffPost:
What is Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals?
Deferred action temporarily prevents deportation of an individual that resides in the United States without a lawful immigration status. <u>It does not give or result in lawful status</u> for the individual, and can be terminated or renewed at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Deferred action does not excuse any past or future period of unlawful presence, however, individuals whose requests are accepted will not increase their unlawful presence in the country while under the action. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a new directive introduced by the Obama Administration on June 15, 2012. The policy shift will allow individuals unlawfully brought into the U.S. as children, and who meet certain guidelines, to apply for two years of deferred action subject to renewal and termination at the discretion of the DHS. Once deferred action has been granted, individuals qualify to obtain work authorization in the United States if he or she can prove "an economic necessity for employment." Those applying must meet all specified guidelines, but decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD" target="_hplink">Source: USCIS</a>
Who Is Eligible?
Individuals currently in removal proceedings, with final orders for removal or with voluntary departure orders, qualify as long as they are not in immigration detention. Those who are in detention can request consideration for deferred action from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Anyone who meets <strong>ALL</strong> 7 guidelines outlined by the Obama Administration is eligible to request deferred action from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Seven Requirements For Eligibility
Applicants must: 1) Be under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012. You must be at least 15 years of age, with some exceptions.* 2) Have come into the U.S. <u>before</u> the age of 16. 3) Have lived in the U.S. permanently since June 15, 2012. Some travel acceptable.* 4) Have been physically in the U.S. on June 15, 2012 and when applying for deferred action. 5) Have entered the U.S. without inspection before June 15, 2012 or have had their lawful immigration status expire since then. 6) Be currently enrolled in school at the time of the request. Also eligible are individuals who have graduated from high school, obtained a GED certificate, or are a honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces. 7) Have not been convicted of a felony, "significant misdemeanor, 3 or more other misdemeanors," and/or are not seen as a threat to national security or public safety. <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD" target="_hplink">*Check USCIS website for details.</a>
How To Apply?
<strong>Before applying</strong>: On their website, the USCIS presents applicants with tips to <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.e8b24a3cec33ca34c48bfc10526e0aa0/?vgnextoid=b9563ab7b8f3b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD&vgnextchannel=b9563ab7b8f3b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD" target="_hplink">ways to avoid scams</a>. In addition, the USCIS lists <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.e8b24a3cec33ca34c48bfc10526e0aa0/?vgnextoid=0dcc051e2286b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD&vgnextchannel=678c051e2286b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD" target="_hplink">Before and After Filing Tips</a>, help in finding <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.e8b24a3cec33ca34c48bfc10526e0aa0/?vgnextoid=03be051e2286b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD&vgnextchannel=963e051e2286b210VgnVCM10000025e6a00aRCRD" target="_hplink">accredited legal services</a> to aid individuals file for deferred action, and examples of <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.e8b24a3cec33ca34c48bfc10526e0aa0/?vgnextoid=148522800d9bb210VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=7a5ca25b1279f210VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD" target="_hplink">common scams to avoid.</a> <strong>Applying</strong>: USCIS begins accepting applications on August 15, 2012. Any requests received prior to this date will be rejected. For consideration, individuals must submit the following (next slide) to the USCIS Lockbox.
Forms and Fee
The application consists of: 1) A completed and signed, <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.5af9bb95919f35e66f614176543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=05faf6c546129310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=db029c7755cb9010VgnVCM10000045f3d6a1RCRD" target="_hplink">Form I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival</a>. Forms should include evidence to support that you meet all 7 guidelines of eligibility. 2) <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.5af9bb95919f35e66f614176543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=73ddd59cb7a5d010VgnVCM10000048f3d6a1RCRD&vgnextchannel=db029c7755cb9010VgnVCM10000045f3d6a1RCRD" target="_hplink">Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization</a> 3) <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Forms/Form Pages/i-765ws.pdf" target="_hplink">Form I-765WS, Worksheet</a> (which establishes your economic need for employment) 4) Filing fees for Form I-765, which total to $465.
All applicants will undergo a background check. Once the forms and fee are received and deemed complete by the USCIS, applicants will receive a receipt notice. The applicant can complete an additional form if he or she <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.5af9bb95919f35e66f614176543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=d9056d4e88ac3210VgnVCM100000b92ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=db029c7755cb9010VgnVCM10000045f3d6a1RCRD" target="_hplink">would like to receive this notice electronically</a>. Afterwards, the USCIS will send applicants notice of their mandatory appointment at an Application Support Center (ASC) for biometric services.
Fee waivers for the work authorization application and biometric collection cannot be requested, very limited exceptions exist.* Denial of deferred action does not mean applicants will be placed in removal proceedings, however under exceptional circumstances cases may be referred to ICE.* Deferred action can be extended past the initial two year period unless terminated. USCIS's determination may not be appealed, though cases can be reviewed in certain circumstances.* Applicants should NOT travel outside of the United States as of August 15, 2012. Doing so will make the applicant ineligible for deferred action consideration. <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD" target="_hplink">*Check USCIS website for details.</a>
How Many People Will Get Relief?
According to The Immigration Policy Center, <a href="http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/who-and-where-dreamers-are" target="_hplink">approximately 1.4 million immigrants in the United States are expected to meet the 7 guidelines</a> of the deferred action initiative, now or in the future. An estimated 936,930 meet those requirements as of August 15, 2012. California (412,560), Texas (226,700), Florida (85,750), and New York (70,170) are the states with the highest number of expected beneficiaries. <a href="http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/who-and-where-dreamers-are" target="_hplink">Click to view complete chart.</a> Mexican immigrants make up almost 70% of those eligible.
Opposition To Deferred Action
<a href="http://www.hstoday.us/briefings/today-s-news-analysis/single-article/dhs-unveils-guidance-for-deferred-action-for-qualfied-young-illegal-aliens/421b6b17eb43472ec0702b4d7c67c602.html" target="_hplink">Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)</a>, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: <blockquote>"In order to process the millions of applications from illegal immigrants, the Obama administration will have to divert funding and other resources from processing legal immigration applications. This will lead to a backlog for legal immigrants who followed the rules, while allowing lawbreakers to skip to the front of the line." Adding that the policy shift is an "open invitation for fraud" during the application process. </blockquote> The directive is <a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hiVdc_qD32hV9d6M_29OxHtAjM3A?docId=a822d4de77c04dbcb5ba0af5db581166" target="_hplink">expected to cost $585 million. </a> Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in an <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3460_162-57454773/romney-immigration-needs-long-term-fix-not-stop-gap/" target="_hplink">interview with CBS News</a>: <blockquote>"With regards to these kids who were brought in by their parents through no fault of their own, there needs to be a long-term solution so they know what their status is."</blockquote>