Former Tri-Citian one of first to receive work permit that lets her remain in U.S.

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 8, 2012 

Ivone Guillen said she wasn't going to believe that her work permit was real until she could hold it in her hand.

This week, the permit arrived in the mail, making Guillen one of the first 29 people in the United States to receive a work permit through the new federal deferred action program.

"I was amazed," said the 25-year-old former Tri-Citian.

An administrative change announced in June by the Department of Homeland Security made the permits possible for people like Guillen, who were brought into the United States illegally as children.

As part of the program, the federal government agreed to stop deporting young adult illegal immigrants who do not present a safety risk and to allow those who are eligible to apply for work permits.

Guillen came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was 5, looking for a better future.

She grew up in Yakima and the Tri-City area, and said she still considers herself a Tri-Citian, although she now lives in Washington, D.C.

Guillen said when she was younger, her goal was to become a U.S. citizen. But that wasn't an option.

"(The work permit) is definitely a positive step in the right direction," said Guillen, who works with a nonprofit involved in immigration advocacy. "But it's not a long-term solution, unfortunately."

On Aug. 17, two days after the federal forms were made public, Guillen submitted 70 pages, including the application and supporting documents.

Tom Roach, a Pasco immigration attorney who represents her family, said he'd already been collecting the documents needed to prove that she has lived in the country continuously for the past five years.

The whole process took just five weeks, although Roach said people were told to expect six months of waiting.

Guillen said she was nervous about applying, especially when she went in to be fingerprinted. She'd gotten used to living in a different manner -- not quite existing, because under the law, she shouldn't be here.

"It was a very stressful process; it was an overwhelming process," said Guillen, who agreed to be interviewed as long as other members of her family were not named.

The work permit means greater opportunities, Guillen said. It means she can apply for any job and show documentation of her right to work.

Guillen said she has worked off and on, but as a recent college graduate she was facing what to do next with her degree. The high school valedictorian earned a double major in international studies and Spanish from Gonzaga University.

Roach said he has more than 100 similar cases -- people who have been waiting for some kind of program.

The deferred action on deportation is available for those who were younger than 16 when they entered the U.S., have lived in the U.S. for at least the past five years, are between 15 and 30 now, don't have a criminal record and are in school, are a high school graduate or have a GED or were honorably discharged from the U.S. military.

Roach estimates there are about 1.2 million people who are eligible for work permits. About 120,000 have submitted applications so far.

Roach's office already has filed applications for 25 people and is working with others on gathering their required documents.

Guillen said it is a fairly straightforward process and encourages others who qualify to apply or at least talk about their concerns with an attorney.

For those still in high school, school records can show where they have lived for the past five years, Roach said.

For people who have been out of school for five years, they need documents such as check stubs, medical records, a government issued ID, tax returns and W-2 forms, Roach said.

About 72 percent of people who are in the United States illegally pay federal taxes and receive W-2 forms from their employers, Roach said. Many file tax returns using their fake Social Security number.

Having enough evidence is the biggest problem people run into, Roach said. But there are still ways to show continuous residency even if someone is a stay-at-home mom, only seasonally employed or recently unemployed.

If the permit is declined because of lack of documentation, Roach said the person isn't likely to be deported. The exception is those who have a criminal history with offenses such as domestic violence. That is a disqualifier, he said.

And there is no appeal process if someone's permit is declined. "You either are successful the first time or you are unsuccessful," he said.

The work permit is renewable for two years. But its future may depend on the presidential election, Roach said, since it was created by an executive order by President Obama and not by Congress.

Roach said the work permit program is a step in the right direction, toward the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Minors, or DREAM Act, which would create a route to citizenship for children of illegal immigrant workers.

Guillen believes Congress needs to enact a comprehensive immigration reform that allows for a pathway to residency, and possibly citizenship. But it has to be earned.

Immigrants want to be able to contribute to their communities, and already do, by harvesting food and working in service jobs. If given the chance, Guillen said they will continue to contribute.

"It has not been an easy road to get to this point," she said. "Although this is a short-term solution to a broader problem that this country has, we must continue to advocate for longer-term solutions."

What some fail to realize is that the current immigration system has few opportunities for people to migrate legally, she said.

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