reWorking Michigan: Window of Opportunity Opens for Undocumented Immigrants

Aug 13, 2012

Immigration experts in Lansing are planning a major outreach project this week.  Starting Wednesday, thousands of undocumented immigrants in Michigan who arrived in the U.S. as children will be eligible to file for work permits. 

The program is part of an executive order President Obama issued in June.

But the policy is far from being a long-term solution.  It only grants undocumented youth freedom from deportation for two years.  Still, many in the immigrant community view it as a ray of hope.  Volunteers are planning a workshop aimed at helping Lansing immigrants achieve a better life.

Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lansing is a small but vibrant snapshot of American immigration.  The parish was founded a half century ago to minister to the local Latino community, though it roots go back even farther.

Father Fred Thelen is the pastor at Cristo Rey.  In his nearly 20 years here, he’s met immigrants from many backgrounds.  All of them fled desperate circumstances in their home country.  

“There’s no work, literally no food sometimes,” Fr. Thelen says.  “And they come here at great risk; tremendous risk.  And they’re some of the most hard working people, and people that have some of the strongest values.”

Thelen says his parishioners come to Michigan enthusiastic about offering their skills and even starting their own businesses.  But new immigrants face a huge hurdle in obtaining legal employment.  Father Thelen says those without a work permit live in the shadows of society, vulnerable to exploitation.

“Sometimes that means maybe you don’t get your wages paid; often you get very low wages because people will take advantage of that,” notes Fr. Thelen.  “You live in fear, you live with a lot of anxiety about this.  You don’t know if you’re going to get picked up by immigration (authorities) and get deported tomorrow.  And so it affects people very deeply.”

Thelen and other immigrant advocates are hoping to change that.  On Wednesday, Cristo Rey will to host a workshop to teach young undocumented immigrants how to apply for a temporary work permit.  The event is sponsored by nearly a dozen immigration agencies and supporters. 

August 15 is the official launch date of a national program known as “DACA,” or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.  Undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30 who arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday can apply for temporary work permits.  The deferment piece means authorities will not deport eligible participants for two years.

(sound of crowd)

About 20 volunteers have gathered at Cristo Rey to learn how to walk eligible applicants through the paperwork process.  All eyes are on Diego Bonesatti, an organizer with the Michigan Alliance for Immigrant Rights and Reform.  He tells them the DACA program is not a law, but a policy that could be reversed at any time.

“It’s important that people understand that they’re setting foot on a bridge, and they don’t see the other end of the bridge; it’s shrouded in fog,” Bonesatti explains.  “And so they may come to the bridge and find it covers half the river and doesn’t reach the other side.”

Bonesatti calls the program “a little island” of certainty.  Undocumented immigrants do whatever is necessary to land a job; in some cases, even obtaining false Social Security numbers.  In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that immigrants can only be charged with federal identity theft if they knowingly use a Social Security number that belongs to another person. The deferred action program is mean to create a legal pathway to work.

Max Anguiano coordinates the Civil Rights for Immigrants Task Force for the group Action of Greater Lansing.  He says the potential applicants he’s spoken to are welcoming the news.

“They’re not afraid,” says Anguiano.  “They come right out and they say, ‘I’m undocumented.  I’m here; they brought me here when it wasn’t my decision.’  But they’re here.  This is the only country they know, and they want to completely participate in the country.”

Diego Bonesatti’s foggy bridge analogy seems an appropriate one.  Still, in all his years of advocacy, he’s noticed this singular truth: immigrants – especially parents – are optimists.

“And the mothers are on the ball and ready,” he says.  “They’ve got the transcripts, they’ve got the information.  They’re looking for their kids to be part of this country.  They are looking at this with a great deal of hope.”

The workshop for undocumented immigrants begins this Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lansing.  Similar events will take place at the same time in Dearborn and Kalamazoo.