By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — Viridiana Martinez’s life has all taken place in a country that officially rejects her.
Though she speaks and thinks better in English, Martinez, born in Mexico, is considered an undocumented immigrant by the United States federal government because she does not have legal residential status.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 1.5 million young students in the country who are in similar situations. Approximately 765,000 of those were brought into the country before the age of 16, and have grown up in the country that practically refuses to recognize them.
The deferred deportation stopgap handed down by the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, and which will enter into force within 24 hours, will grant a work permit to Martinez and other undocumented immigrants who, like her, came to the country as children.
But Martinez remains skeptical that the measure will be adopted broadly.
“I don’t think it will apply because (local enforcers) don’t believe in this,” Martinez told Florida Watchdog during an interview in a house shared with other members of the National Alliance of Young Immigrants in Lake Worth. The alliance is an activist organization of documented and undocumented youth fighting for federal immigration reform.
In order to investigate further, Martinez, along with her friend Marcos Saavedra, infiltrated the Broward Transitional Center, an immigration detention facility used for holding undocumented immigrants before their deportation proceedings.
“We wanted to be detained in order to see for ourselves the people who have been locked away,” said Saavedra. “We wanted to hear their stories.”
Saavedra turned himself in at Port Everglades and remained in the holding facility for 14 days, while Martinez did the same in Pompano Beach, at the woman’s facility.
“When I entered prison on July 19, I found at least three people who met the requirements for deferred action,” said Martinez. “That’s an example of the president’s words on television not being respected in practice.”
Both Martinez and Saavedra refer to themselves as “Dreamers,” qualifying immigrant students who would be eligible for work and study visas under the proposed DREAM Act, which remains stalled in the U.S. Senate.
The DREAM Act would allow young students and military enlistees who are undocumented the opportunity to stay in the country and apply for longer term residence.
“The police and immigration officers, along with the guards at the prison, are doing something completely different at the local level. That’s what I saw,” said Martinez.
It is not amnesty, not a legal status
“DHS will exercise prosecutorial discretion as appropriate to ensure that enforcement resources are not expended on low priority cases, such as individuals who came to the United States as children and meet other key guidelines,” writes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on its website.
“Individuals who demonstrate that they meet the guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and may be eligible for employment authorization.
“The memo also serves to make clear that agency employees can exercise their prosecutorial discretion and the factors to be considered,” writes the USCIS, giving individual case officers more leeway in deciding deportation.
Maria Trina Burgos, an immigration attorney in Miami, said the plan is ultimately beneficial for those seeking to enroll in school and contribute to society.
“The delayed action protects individuals who qualify from being deported for a specific period of time,” Burgos told Florida Watchdog.
According to the USCIS, the following qualifications must be met in order to avoid deportation:
- One must be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;
- Came to the United States before reaching your 16th birthday;
- Have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time;
- Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS;
- Entered without inspection before June 15, 2012, or your lawful immigration status expired as of June 15, 2012;
- Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and
- Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
But meeting the qualifications alone does not guarantee deferred action, according to the USCIS, as it ultimately rests on the judgment of the individual immigration officer assigned to the case.
“The officer has broad discretion when deciding whether or not to grant the benefit,” said Burgos.
“I think it is the best option for them, especially those who obviously have no other choice. If someone is in the process of deportation or might have entered the country illegally, then this is a good choice.”
The prison experience
After spending 14 days in a women’s prison in Pompano Beach, Viridiana describes an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and sadness.
“There was an average of about 80 women, most of them who should be set be free. At midnight, the guards take them from their bed and put them on a plane to deport them,” she said.
“Many are afraid to return (to their countries) because they have suffered domestic violence. Some women have absolutely nothing and become victims of racial profiling, the fact that they do not speak the language and end up in Broward without communication, resources or help. And the guards’ treatment of detainees was very overbearing,” said Martinez.
“I went because I am a young dreamer, because I have privileges from having grown up here, speaking the language and because I am eligible for deferred action. I have a community of people who support me. There was always a risk, but it was worth it,” she said.
“I think politicians use the immigration issue for political purposes. Obama said he would give us the DREAM Act in the first 100 days of his administration, but he didn’t. What we have seen are just promises broken and more people deported in this administration than any other,” said Martinez. “That speaks for itself.”
Watch the Spanish-language interview with activist Viridiana Martinez:
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org and on Twitter @mtoledoreporter