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Undocumented immigrants in Richmond seek help in applying for deferred action

on September 14, 2012

Karina Gutierrez was born in Mexico and was brought to the United States by her parents when she was four years old. She is not a U.S. citizen and has no legal right to be here.

Now 24, Gutierrez graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2010, where she double majored in political science and psychology, and is a second-year law student at Golden Gate University, focusing on her favorite topic—the Constitution. Gutierrez says that because of her accomplishments, and because she came to the United States without choice as a toddler, she deserves to be a citizen.

“On principle,” Gutierrez said, “I don’t see why my education is not as valuable as getting married. I have merits on my own.”

On Thursday, Gutierrez was helping people in a similar situation find out more about deferred action and determine the next steps for applying as part of an applicant screening session at Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s Richmond Office.

In July, President Obama signed an executive order providing qualified undocumented immigrants – potentially including Gutierrez — safety from deportation for two years at a time. The qualifications include: between 15-30 years old, first entered the United States before 16years of age, currently in high school or have earned a diploma/GED or served in the military, been in the United States continuously since 2007 and have a record free of serious crime. The cost to apply is $465 and there is no appeal process.

Gutierrez is a legal intern with Catholic Charities of the East Bay and started the job just before the act was signed. Led by Heather Wolf, the director of the program and an immigration attorney, Gutierrez and the staff at Catholic Charities of the East Bay quickly developed a plan for reaching out to local undocumented immigrants.

Within a week of the federal government opening up the application period, Wolf and her team handed out flyers around the East Bay and held their first information session at their Richmond office, located inside Grace Lutheran Church at 2369 Barrett Avenue.

At first just a few people showed up, but as word spread more came out. Wolf estimates that in the last month they’ve met with more than 100 people in the Richmond office and hundreds more at events throughout the East Bay.

According to a report produced in July by The Immigration Policy Center there are 5,300 undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15-30, in Congressional District 7, which includes Richmond, Martinez, Concord, Vallejo and Vacaville.

It’s a small staff for such a large community, and the process of gathering the appropriate evidence and filling out the paperwork to apply for deferred action can be arduous.

“We’ve been busy,” said Wolf, gesturing at the piles of paper covering the desks in the small office she shares with three other staffers.

Wolf and her team still hold Thursday afternoon meetings, but the purpose of these meetings has changed from providing information to screening potential applicants for $20 per person. If there are any red during the screening process—ranging from various criminal disqualifying factors to having left the country in the last five years—the applicant is sent on to a lawyer to discuss further options.

Eden Naranjo, 20, attended this week’s screening. He said he tried to research the process online before he came but didn’t have much luck. “They really don’t go over a lot of information,” Naranjo said. “They don’t tell you how to fill it out. I’m here today to get some questions answered.”

The question most people ask is one that Wolf cannot answer. “The most common question is, ‘If Obama’s not reelected what’s going to happen?’” Wolf said.  Her advice is to apply anyway.

“If Obama is not reelected we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “For people whose application is pending I seriously doubt Romney will revoke it. Everybody is saying it’ll be political suicide for Romney to revoke it right away.”

“But,” she added, “it is a risk.”

So far 72,000 people have taken that risk nationwide, according to officials at the Homeland Security Department. This week the Obama administration said the first applicants to the program are being told whether or not they qualified.

On October 6, Catholic Charities of the East Bay is partnering with other local community organizations to hold a large application workshop for people who’ve already been pre-screened. They’re anticipating around 150 people.

Gutierrez said she sees this as just the first step to the immigration reform she’d like to see implemented—the DREAM act, which would provide a path to residency. “If we stay quiet — if we don’t move, if we don’t submit the applications change is not going to happen,” she said.

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