Embracing freedom of being 'legal'

In a small, modest single-story house in Windsor, four siblings brought illegally to the United States as children have spent many years with their faces buried in schoolbooks preparing for a vague future, studying calculus, psychology, history and stock markets.

Their evening studies often were conducted on a coffee table in the living room, under the watchful gaze of their parents and the constant clucking of chickens strutting outside in the dirt driveway.

Last month that future became much clearer for Rosalba Rivera, 18, and her brother Marcos, 17, when they joined the nearly 200,000 young undocumented immigrants granted a temporary reprieve from deportation through an immigration program ordered by President Barack Obama last summer. Rosalba's twin sister, Melina, and their oldest sibling, Adriana, 19, are on track to get the same opportunity.

Now, although they are neither citizens nor legal permanent residents, they are no longer "illegal." At least for now, they've been given the opportunity to legally work, drive cars, pay taxes and go to school.

And their buoyed aspirations reflect the hopes and expectations of millions of other illegal immigrants who could benefit from current efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

<NO1><NO>The break the Rivera siblings got is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. As of mid-February, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has approved temporary legal work status for 199,460 undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children. In California, 110,466 immigrants have applied under the program, the largest number from any state.<NO1><NO>

Melina said that when her sister received her federal work authorization card in the mail, the real possibility of one day being fully "legal" began to take root.

"When my sister got it, I felt like, oh my God, this is really happening," she said. "It's a step closer to being a legal resident here."

With financial aid now available to them, Melina, who has been accepted to Sonoma State and San Diego State, plans to double major in business and forensic sciences. Rosalba, who has been accepted to SSU and Humboldt State, is leaning toward a business major.

Adriana, the oldest, is taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College focusing on psychology, while Marcos, a junior at Windsor High School, says he's very interested in his digital media classes and hopes to study law at Empire College.

Even as Congress begins the difficult task of forging a massive immigration bill, advocates say the newfound freedoms granted to the Riveras offer a hint to what could happen to millions of other lives if the nation's immigration laws are revamped.

In late November, Arnold Climaco, 21, received his work authorization card months after applying for deferred action. He said that when he opened the envelope and saw the card an unimaginable weight lifted from his life.

"I was excited, man. It was cool that I got my worker's permit," said Climaco, who is looking for a job.

Climaco was brought to the United States illegally by his parents when he was 2 years old. His family had lived in Ciudad Nezahualc?otl, a large city on the outskirts of Mexico City that has a significant share of its population living in poverty. His father, a construction worker, came to Santa Rosa for better opportunities, he said.

After receiving his work authorization card, Climaco called Catholic Charities immigration services, which had assisted him in applying for deferred action, to find out his next step. He applied for and received his Social Security number two weeks later, he said.

Then he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver's permit. Climaco said he requested a state identification card on the spot because he'd never had one. He said he received his driver's license in mid-January.

"It was pretty cool. Most of the time I would take the bus or get rides to where ever I wanted to go," he said, adding that until he gets his own car he'll drive family members' or friends' cars.

He said he no longer is afraid of getting pulled over by police and landing in jail because he has no valid identification. Undocumented immigrants who end up in jail usually wind up with an immigration hold that can often lead to a deportation order.

"If I get pulled over, nothing will happen other than I get a ticket," he said.

Last week, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing on the latest effort to overhaul the country's immigration system. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the committee and called for a "common sense" comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws that would continue current enforcement efforts, strengthen employer penalties for hiring unauthorized workers and update the legal immigration process.

Lawmakers spoke of the need to include a pathway to citizenship for youth who have been granted deferred action. These young immigrants are often called "Dreamers," a reference to the proposed DREAM Act that would create a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.

As a generation of these young immigrants approaches the end of their schooling, their call for some form of legalization has become increasingly vocal through protests, college sit-ins and caravans to the nation's capitol.

Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and advocate, said the protests resemble in spirit the pivotal 1960 sit-in by young African-American college students at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

"The rise of the Dreamers — their civil disobedience, the caravans .<TH>.<TH>. people coming out of the closet to fill out DACA applications — has made an enormous difference," Coshnear said.

Lee Hunt, a Sonoma County attorney, was so impressed with one such Dreamer that she and a friend paid for the student's university education. Hunt, a family law consultant, said the experiences of Dreamers are starting to reshape the immigration debate.

"Their stories are so compelling that it can't help but change the discourse," she said.

<NO1><NO>Carmina Rivera, the mother of the four Windsor siblings who applied for deferred action, said it's comforting to know that her kids will no longer have to fear deportation.

"But I'm also sad that I still face that threat," she said, speaking in Spanish. "If they deport me, I won't be able to be with them, to help them . . . I would also like to have the opportunity to fix my status."