After a gift from the president, aspiring engineer Diego Aguilar decided to head to UConn in the fall instead of packing his bags for Canada.
The Mexican-born student shared his story Monday afternoon as Connecticut “Dreamers” came forward to celebrate President Obama’s executive order Friday granting temporary refuge for undocumented immigrants like him.
Inspired by the order, some undocumented young people Monday came forward for the first time to participate in an event on the issue, and one speaker told his story in public for the first time.
Effective immediately, the federal government will allow certain immigrants who came here without permission as children to apply for a two-year safeguard against deportation, enabling them to get temporary work permits but not citizenship. There is no cap on the number of two-year renewals.
Aguilar is one of an estimated 11,000 to 20,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who fall under protection from deportation thanks to Obama’s move. He joined a couple dozen members of Connecticut Students For A Dream Monday in a packed classroom at the Yale Law School, which contributed legal advice for a national campaign to make the policy happen.
Aguilar, who was born in Mexico City, said his parents decided to leave a drug and crime-ridden neighborhood in search of a better life. They broke U.S. immigration law and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 8 years old. Aguilar spoke no English at the time. His dad painted houses and his mom took on babysitting jobs to support the family as he devoted himself to his studies. He said he graduated in 2010 as the valedictorian of Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk and went on to get his associate’s degree in engineering from Norwalk Community College.
Before Obama’s decision Friday, Aguilar felt he was at a dead end. He was shut out from the engineering workforce and from financial aid for college.
“I felt unwanted here,” Aguilar said.
He got an acceptance letter to Toronto University and made a plan to leave his family in pursuit of his career. He decided to fly home to Mexico—risking a 10-year ban on returning to the U.S.—and apply to the Canadian government for permission to immigrate there.
Aguilar said just five days before he was set to head back home, Obama came through with a “miracle.”
The new federal policy applies to undocumented immigrants who were under 16 when they came to the U.S., have lived here for five continuous years, have a clean criminal record, and are under 30. Immigrants must be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school, or have served honorably in the military.
Because he fits those criteria, Aguilar can now apply for “deferred action,” a two-year safeguard against deportation.
As an undocumented immigrant, Aguilar still doesn’t have access to the state or federal aid that enables most students to make it through college. But Obama’s gift Friday will enable him to apply for work authorization, so he can take a job in the engineering field and put himself through college, he said. Aguilar said he already has an acceptance letter to the University of Connecticut, where he now plans to enroll in the fall.
The Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School represented Connecticut Students For A Dream, as well as United We Dream Network, the largest national network for undocumented immigrant students, in the campaign to grant relief for “dreamers.” The federal safeguards come on the heels of a DREAM Act Gov. Dannel Malloy signed last year granting undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
Lorella Praeli (pictured), a Peruvian-American from New Milford who has become a national leader in the dreamers’ cause, said United We Dream decided to focus on lobbying Obama after Congress repeatedly failed to pass a national DREAM Act that would have granted a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came here as children.
She turned to two rows of undocumented high school and college students who showed up for the event.
“The world is yours,” she told them.
The group included Carlos Castro, whose family immigrated illegally from Ecuador when he was 7. Now 25, he graduated from Shelton High School and earned a certificate to be an electrician. He said the federal government has been on the lookout for him ever since his family applied for asylum, was rejected, and decided to defy a deportation order.
Castro, who was telling his story publicly for the first time, said his sister was deported some two years ago. He recently spent three weeks in jail as Immigration and Customs Enforcement tried to deport him. His only crime was defying the deportation order against him.
Castro will now be able to apply for a two-year safeguard against deportation, which will enable him to continue an electrician’s apprenticeship.
Praeli said she is “celebrating with caution.” Some questions remain unanswered, such as what will happen to the dreamers once they hit age 30. It’s not clear yet whether the federal government will allow someone like Castro to continue to renew his safeguard against deportation after he ages out of the new relief.
Praeli said United We Dream will continue to push for a federal DREAM Act. Locally, activists will be lobbying state government to open up some $53.3 million in state financial aid to “dreamer” applicants.
Meanwhile, Diego Aguilar said his mom is delighted with the news that he won’t be leaving for Canada.
“She’s very happy,” he said.