MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And speaking of dreams, the Obama Administration says its high profile immigration initiative is intended to preserve the dreams of a large group of young immigrants. The program is called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Initiative.
In August, the administration began offering this reprieve from deportation to a select group of people who are brought or sent to the U.S. as children, but without proper authorization. But to qualify, applicants need some kind of documentation about their lives and that's a paper trail that many have tried desperately to avoid all these years to remain under the radar.
To learn more about this and other challenges in the process, we called Chung-What Hong. She is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. That's an advocacy group that provides legal assistance to immigrants and refugees.
And welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
CHUNG-WHA HONG: Great to be here.
MARTIN: Your group has helped, as I understand it, about 3,000 applicants so far. Could you just give us some of their stories? Tell us some of the circumstances that they confronted as they tried to put these applications forward.
HONG: So obviously, we have so many people coming out, trying to see if they qualify, and there are criteria that they have to meet and evidence that they have to gather. So one criteria is that you have to show a continuous presence in the United States and - you know, for five years - and that's been a big challenge. A lot of people are here working kind of under the table. They're not in school, in some cases, even though they're school age, and it's hard to get documentation from employers who actually are not even supposed to employ them. So that's one challenge.
Other times we have applicants who came - because you have to show that you came before your 16th birthday. So we have an applicant who came a week before his 16th birthday and he does not have proof for that one week that he was here.
MARTIN: We've spoken to a couple of young people who actually did benefit from help from your organization. Eduardo Resendes(ph) moved here from Mexico seven years ago. He's 22 and this is what he told us. The application fee, for example - I'm not sure everybody knows that there is an application fee, and this is what he told us about that.
EDUARDO RESENDES: It's $465 in total. To a person like myself who is paying out of pocket for college tuition, it's very difficult to find the funds to pay for it. I'm still saving. I still have a couple of weeks to go. Yeah. I'm close to the goal now.
MARTIN: Are you finding that the fee itself is a barrier for many people?
HONG: Yes. I would say there's several key barriers that a lot of people are experiencing. If you're earning minimum wage, it's a big amount of money. Another hurdle is, you know, when the only documentation or proof that you're here is your job and employers are hesitant to give letters or, you know, write that they're employing them.
There is the proving educational requirement. Some of the kids who went to, you know, certain schools in New York, the schools have closed down since then and so they are requesting, you know, records from the whole system, and that's taking a long time.
Other times, you know, people enroll in educational programs to meet the educational requirement, but they're not sure if that educational institution is a qualifying educational institution. So these are all of the things that people have to grapple with.
MARTIN: Are schools being generally cooperative?
HONG: It really depends because, you know, schools have to have so much to worry about, especially in the beginning of the school. It just comes with so much chaos and because the applications were being accepted starting August 15th, a lot of kids were just waiting for that first day of school to go and try to get their records, and so they've had to deal with some of the, you know, bureaucratic delays. So it's been kind of uneven.
MARTIN: But you made a point that - although that I think a lot of people hadn't thought of - there's been a lot of talk in sort of education reform circles about closing schools and changing the identities of certain schools. I mean, you know, schools have been broken up into other schools in a number of major cities because there's been a lot of experimentation with school reform. And what you're saying is that those records that may have resided in a particular school don't live there anymore. Is that what you're saying?
MARTIN: And so what do you do in that case?
HONG: So the Department of Education has assured us that once you request the paperwork, that they will process it, even though the school is not there physically. So we're waiting for that process to be, you know, implemented, so we have applicants who've made that request and are waiting.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about some of the hurdles that young immigrants are facing when they're applying for Deferred Action. That's the program that the Obama administration launched this summer that allows a certain category of young people brought here without proper documentation as children to stay in this country and get work authorization. We're speaking with Chung-Wha Hong. She's the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. That's an advocacy group that's trying to help immigrants like this.
There is also a requirement that you have to prove you were in the U.S. on June 15th, which is the day that the program was announced. This is to avoid having people come into the country after the announcement was made, even if they had, say, been here before. As we said, you have to prove that you've been here continuously.
MARTIN: Well, how would you prove that?
HONG: It's very difficult. We have applicants asking us, can we write a letter, you know, that they volunteered here for people who volunteered at nonprofit organizations. You know, churches are being asked to provide proof of presence. Different kind of sports teams that played games on that day who have team roster records. So people are going for every little documentation that they can get.
MARTIN: What about like posting on social media sites and things of that sort? Do you have a sense that that is going to be accepted? Do you know?
HONG: Yes. People are looking for, you know, photos with some sort of a date and time marked on it or you could trace it back to that date, and so young people have been ingenious about using social media, you know, Facebook postings and things like that.
MARTIN: Something that you mentioned earlier - you can see where employers would be reluctant to acknowledge that they hired somebody, even if they paid taxes and had W2s and, you know, did pay taxes for people. What if it emerges later that the person used a false Social Security number or what if they didn't have the proper authorization to work in this country? You can see where an employer would not necessarily want to expose himself or herself to scrutiny for this. Are you finding that that's the case, that employers are saying, yes, you worked here, but no, I'm not going to put my hand up because what if the program changes and then I get prosecuted? Are people saying that?
HONG: There's been some assurances, but there's always that uncertainty and fear, so you know, people have to be very persistent and trying to get the documentation that they need.
MARTIN: One question. And you may consider this beyond the scope of your expertise, but we're talking here about the challenges that people are facing in meeting these requirements. What do you say to other people who say, well, U.S. citizenship - or at least the right to stay in this country, the right to work in this country legally - is a very valuable thing and, you know, maybe you should have to put some effort into that - what are you complaining about?
HONG: We haven't heard anybody complaining. I think the overwhelming reaction we've seen is that applicants are so grateful that they have this opportunity. I was talking to a teacher who said, last week, she had, you know, five kids who came back to school. These are kids who dropped out of high school because they thought, you know, what's the point if I get a degree, right? Because I can't get a job or go to college because they're not eligible for scholarships or financial aid.
You know, our country and so many foundations - everybody's putting in millions of dollars to, you know, college readiness and how do we send more kids to college? This program has proven to be one of the most powerful hooks drawing people back into the school system because the incentive is so great.
MARTIN: Chung-Wha Hong is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. That's a group that offers assistance to refugees and other immigrants, and she joined us from our bureau in New York City.
Chung-Wha Hong, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HONG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.