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A new program gives young illegal immigrants one shot at legitimacy

For most of their lives, these kids shunned the spotlight. Undocumented immigrants living with the threat of sudden deportation tend to stick to the shadows. After all, you never know if a spotlight is being held by an immigration agent.

Now they’re coming out of the darkness, thanks to President Obama’s deferred action program. It allows young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally before the age of 16 to ask the federal government for a temporary reprieve from deportation. Those who qualify will be able to work and drive legally. The two-year program is a stop-gap measure that must be renewed until Congress passes legislation like the DREAM Act that would create a path to citizenship for young, upstanding immigrants.

Last week, the federal government began accepting deferred action applications from the first batch of Dreamers. These are kids who were brought to the U.S. by their parents, who consider themselves Americans and have graduated from high school, completed a GED or served in the military. Activists in Las Vegas celebrated with a press conference at the offices of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Dolores Huerta, a civil-rights activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers, addressed the room in English and Spanish. The day was not just a victory for undocumented youth, she said, it was also a triumph for American society, which would benefit from their education and ambition.

“The education they have is going to enrich our country,” she said. “Dreamers may have degrees, but they couldn’t practice what they learned.”

Sandra Gamez, 20, said her older sister was a perfect example. Her parents smuggled her into the country when she was 7 months old. They had Sandra afterward.

Gamez has watched her sister struggle with her status, which prevented her from driving a car or getting a job. But she never let it get her down and graduated last year from UNLV. Before she submitted her own paperwork, the older Gamez helped other immigrants at Hermandad Mexicana, a community-based immigration resource center.

Astrid Silva, the public face of Nevada Dreamers, finally took her turn in the spotlight as the emcee of the late morning event. Silva, who is 20, has not been shy in her advocacy for young immigrants like herself, but she has been careful, employing fake names and faceless photographs to tell her story. She was brought to the United States when she was 4. She excelled in school and dreamed of college. But before she graduated from high school, she found out about her undocumented status.

Silva couldn’t get a job, couldn’t drive and couldn’t attend UNLV. All of that changes if her application is approved.

“It means so much,” she said. “I can finally give back to my community. I can apply for a work permit and pay for my education.”

Immigrants such as Silva have only one chance to apply for the program. Applicants must be 30 or younger, be in school, have a diploma, GED or military service and no felonies or serious misdemeanors.

The application is complicated and expensive, and getting it right the first time is critical. So local organizations like Hermandad Mexicana and the Culinary Union are providing low-cost or free assistance to some applicants.

The Culinary Union will open its doors on Labor Day to offer free assistance to qualifying people. Hermandad Mexicana will help fill out the paperwork for a small, flat fee. Both groups are trying to prevent these immigrants from being victimized by unscrupulous attorneys and Spanish-speaking swindlers.

Peter Ashman, an immigration attorney in Las Vegas, has seen the signs up on Eastern Avenue and Bonanza Road, offering to help applicants for a hefty fee. It isn’t the first time. In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, corrupt characters flooded immigrant communities with offers of help. Many times, they walked away with lots of money — and lots of broken promises, Ashman said.

“This is the biggest opportunity since the Reagan amnesty,” Ashman said. “And there was a huge amount of fraud back then. A lot of people went to jail.”

The signs aren’t just in East Las Vegas. Lawyers and “legal services” are advertising on Craigslist, offering Skype consultations and speedy service. Ashman said not to trust them. Beware of anyone making extravagant promises about immediate action or full citizenship.

Silva’s family has been victimized by fraudulent notarios, unauthorized immigration consultants who use the Spanish word for lawyer to curry trust in the Hispanic community. These are the same people who could take advantage of undocumented youth.

Why would an immigrant use a notario instead of a lawyer? It’s cultural, Ashman said.

“This group has had to acclimate by being under the bed or in the closet,” he said. “They tend to trust their own people because it is a closed group.”

Qualifying immigrants who get victimized by bad counsel may not get another chance at this. The Obama program will expire in two years unless it is renewed. But it won’t be renewed if Mitt Romney is elected. That message wasn’t lost on the crowd at PLAN.

“Some people want to take this away from us,” Huerta said. “Let’s make sure that it will be sustained.”