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Teen immigrants risk ban by seeking legal status

  • Jesus Atilano, 18, leans over to give his mother Emma a kiss while she does the dishes on Thursday, March 14, 2013. (CONNER JAY/Press Democrat)

Earlier this month, Elsie Allen High School graduate Jesus Atilano filed for a federal program that would stop the clock on his status as an undocumented immigrant.

For Atilano, who was brought into the United States illegally from Mexico by his parents when he was 1, it's a chance for a new life -- a more legitimate one that comes with a federal work permit, a Social Security number and, if he wants, a California driver's license.

But there's a downside that, under current immigration rules, could haunt him in the future should he decide to become "legal."

Atilano filed for the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA for short, more than six months after his 18th birthday. As a result, he now faces a possible three-year ban from re-entering the country should he ever leave and attempt to get his green card at the U.S. Consulate office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

If he does not get deferred action before his birthday in late May, he will have accrued one year of unlawful presence in the U.S. and face a 10-year ban from re-entry.

"I wish I could move on with my life, but I guess people have obstacles," Atilano said Wednesday after meeting an immigration consultant in Santa Rosa.

Atilano would have no unlawful presence accrued had he filed for deferred action before he turned 18 last May. The program wasn't announced by the Obama administration until a month later, and it wasn't launched until August.

To avoid predicaments like the one facing Atilano, young undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred action are being strongly advised to apply before they turn 18.

"Kids who apply between 15 and 18 get an added benefit -- they never accrue unlawful presence," said Kathy Differding, Atilano's immigration consultant and the manager of immigration and citizenship services for the nonprofit California Human Development Corp.

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