By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma State University sophomore Sandy Valenciano was almost five years old when she and her older sister illegally crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in 1998 to be with their parents, both undocumented immigrants living in the East Bay.
Valenciano, now 18, remembers how she and her older sister, scared and anxious, crossed the border in Tijuana, posing as the U.S.-born children of a man their father had paid to get them across.
“I remember I brought a doll and my older sister brought a doll, and as we were crossing we couldn’t look back. We were scared,” she said. “I’ve lived with fear for all my life.”
For Valenciano and hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, that fear was lifted Friday when President Barack Obama announced they no longer would be threatened by deportation and would be able to obtain work permits.
The policy directive would halt deportations but not create an avenue for citizenship. Obama called it a “stop-gap” measure while Congress moves on the Dream Act, stalled legislation that would create a path toward citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who are students or have served in the military.
Obama’s announcement Friday resonated through the North Coast immigrant community, leaving many, especially students, in disbelief and even speechless.
Valenciano, who went to high school in the East Bay and now rents a room from a family in Rohnert Park because she can’t afford to live on campus at Sonoma State, is the first in her family to go to college.
Her goal is to earn a Ph.D in psychology and become a family therapist, and she hopes the new policy will create more opportunities to pay for college. Her father, a construction worker, has had difficulty finding work and her mother has worked at a fast-food restaurant for nearly 14 years.
“It literally feels like a dream and I’m just waiting to wake up from it,” said Valenciano, who is a member of the local Dream Alliance, a national student movement that has campaigned for passage of the Dream Act.
Julie Cyphers, a Healdsburg attorney who specializes in immigration law and also teaches immigration law at Empire College in Santa Rosa, said the new policy would grant “deferred action status” to those who qualify.
“That basically means that people who qualify would not be deported as long as they meet certain criteria,” she said.
Applicants must have entered the country before they turned 16; must either currently be enrolled in high school or be a high school graduate or GED recipient; must be under 30 when they apply; have been physically present in the United States for five years; and must pass a criminal background check.
“We’re talking about students, people who were brought here as children through no fault of their own,” Cyphers said.
The new policy would grant two-year work permits with the possibility of extending them, she said.
“It’s important that people understand that this is not in place,” Cyphers said, “and they should not submit any applications until further guidance is provided” by federal immigration officials.
That should happen in the next few weeks, she said.
Jesus Guzman, an organizer with the Dream Alliance of Sonoma County, said Dream Act supporters have pressured Obama to take action for two years. In recent weeks, immigration scholars have called on him to use his executive power, he said.
Guzman said it appears Obama has decided to take a political gamble by siding with immigrant rights supporters, many of whom had grown frustrated with his failure to enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul while at the same time stepping up deportations.
Going into the November election, Latino support for Obama was lukewarm, he said.
“He knew that with the election coming up he had to distinguish himself from Mitt Romney,” Guzman said. “This is a perfect issue to divide his position from Romney’s.”
However, a representative of a conservative North Coast group described Obama’s action as a “travesty and belittling” of the Constitution and a “serious breach” of the separation of presidential and congressional powers.
“The president acted more like a dictator than the president of a free country,” said Terry Tomasino of the North Bay Patriots.
“Immigration reform is needed and must be brought about through the well-defined processes delineated in our Constitution,” he said. “Any other attempt to force one’s desires will be highly divisive.”
North Coast immigration attorneys and scholars said the impact will be far-reaching.
Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights, Sonoma County, estimated that 1,000 or more young undocumented immigrants could be affected.
“He’s throwing a bone, though it’s a pretty big bone,” Coshnear said. “It’s not comprehensive immigration reform, but it will help a substantial part of the community.”
Roberto G. Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has done extensive research on undocumented children, said the president’s action takes an enormous pressure off students who are Americans in every other way but their immigration status.
“A lot of young people in our community are growing up and coming of age at a time when their day-to-day life is saturated with the threat and fear of being picked up and deported,” he said.
Gonzalez said that undocumented students graduate “from a place like Sonoma State and even get advanced degrees but are not able to get a job that matches their qualifications.”
Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said Obama’s move will encourage undocumented students to finish their studies.
“At a time when we’re seeing this demographic boom, particularly among Latino youth, we should do everything in our power to encourage higher education and education in general,” he said.