Rep. Juan Vargas speaks to immigration supporters outside Christ the King Catholic Community Church in Grant Hill. Photo by Chris Jennewein
Rep. Juan Vargas at a rally for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Photo by Chris Jennewein

By Leonard Novarro

For most, leaving the house is as normal as putting on a pair of shoes. But for Ruben Espino of San Diego, stepping into the world outside his home was a stumbling block that might never end.

“I could not go out of the house without fear” of being stopped, arrested or deported, said Espino during a roundtable discussion in San Diego last week focusing on how many undocumented immigrants can recapture control of their lives. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in short, DACA, an executive action by President Obama in 2012, allows many immigrants trying to pass under the radar to realistically navigate a path toward American citizenship — or, at the very least, thwart deportation. While the program doesn’t put immigrants on that path directly, it at least can get them started in the right direction.

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The program applies to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday and before June 2007. It exempts them from deportation, and offers a two-year, renewable work permit and eligibility for Social Security. While the executive action doesn’t guarantee a path to citizenship, supporters say it is a start. Changes to the presidential order, in November 2014, expanded the program to include undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 2010 and made those younger than 31 years of age eligible. The change was challenged at the Supreme Court, but a 4-4 split, in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, left the program and changes intact.

Thus far, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department, which oversees the initiative, has accepted 581,000 people into the program. The Pew Research Center estimates that up to 1.7 million people, may be eligible, including 40,000 Asians and Hispanics in San Diego.

The problem: Not enough families know about it. The purpose of the meeting last week, sponsored by New America Media; Ready California, a statewide network of organizations providing community education and legal services; and Alliance San Diego, was to help change that. The meeting was held in the North Park offices of Alliance and moderated by Odette Alcazaren-Keeley, national media network director for New America Media, a collaborative of more than 3,000 ethnic media outlets.

Panelist Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified School District board member, emphasized that the anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating the presidential campaign may have dissuaded many from even trying to find out about the DACA program. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a wall along the border with Mexico to stop the illegal immigration and a ban on Muslims and other immigrants entering the country legally.

“Anti-immigrant rhetoric affects the daily lives of kids. Deportation of their parents is a reality,” said Barrera. Hence, “many are eligible but don’t apply.” While many residents of San Diego are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, “we are being used as a political tool,” he added.

San Diego has the third largest number of undocumented immigrants among California cities, according to the panel. That’s why the meeting’s message was so important, according to Itzel Guillen, immigration coordinator for the Alliance, and San Diego attorney Tammy Lin, who said, “We have to move forward to empower people. There’s a lot at stake.”

Fellow panelist Oscar Segovia also told how his son was reluctant to leave the house, avoiding school and work. Through the father’s insistence, the son entered the program, returned to school and has found a full-time job.

Before DACA, said Espino, he suffered depression and dropped out of school, then followed 15 years of menial jobs. “I was hidden in the shadows until four years ago,” he said, calling the program “a gift.”

“It was my gateway to normalcy,” he added. “It told me that I could achieve and it gave me a sense of empowerment. It was worth taking the risk.” Espino has since obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started college.

According to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, studies show that immigrants who have availed themselves of the program have a substantial increase — as much as 45 percent — in income. One of those studies was conducted by the Center for American Progress and Tom Wong, an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego.

“If you asked me eight years ago if I thought undocumented people could be lawyers or doctors, I would have said ‘no,’” said Anthony Ng, a DACA. recipient from the Philippines who participated in a similar forum in Los Angeles in July. However, because of the program, he said, “I’ve seen my friends pursue their lifelong dreams.”

Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society.