For young, undocumented immigrants in Beaufort County, Obama's order brings hope

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For young, undocumented immigrants in Beaufort County, Obama's order brings hope

By RACHEL HEATON
rheaton@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, June 23, 2012   |  1019 Words  |  

Dinner for Lydia's daughter is about as American as it gets -- mac and cheese. The young mother doesn't cook food from Argentina, the country of her birth.

She works most days as a waitress in a Beaufort County restaurant, sometimes putting in two shifts a day. She's saved up money, and is in the process of buying a home. She also recently bought her first car.

But every time Lydia drives to work, a fear nags her -- what if she never makes it back home to her baby, family and fiancee?

Lydia, who asked that her real name not be used, is an undocumented immigrant. If she's caught speeding, she could be deported. If her bosses find out, she could be deported. The worry can be overwhelming.

"You do not know how many times I've cried or hit a wall," she said. "There's so much frustration. You feel like it's your fault."

If you ask her, Lydia will say she's American. She moved here with her family from Argentina when she was 8. She's spent 12 years of her life here -- going to school, working part-time jobs, making friends and falling in love.

She hasn't been back to Argentina. And she hopes she doesn't have to.

"I'm an American. I was raised here," she said. "I know English more than Spanish. I know how to make macaroni and cheese; I don't know how to make Hispanic food."

When she learned recently that she might be able to live here legally, it was hard to believe, Lydia said. On June 15 President Barack Obama announced a pathway for undocumented immigrants who moved to the U.S. as children to live and work here without fear of deportation.

To meet the requirements, undocumented immigrants must have moved to the U.S. before they were 16, lived here for five years, be in school -- or have graduated from high school or served in the military -- be no more than 30 years old and have a clean criminal record.

Obama's executive order could apply to as many as 1.4 million children and young adults, according to estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center.

The order allows the immigrants to obtain financial aid so they can go to college and to get legal documents allowing them to work, such as driver's or professional licenses.

"I still can't believe it," Lydia said. "I've been fighting for 12 years for me to go to school, to drive, to feel save and not be discriminated against."

Obama's announcement means hope for tens of thousands of young people in Beaufort County and the Lowcountry, said Eric Esquivel, president of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition.

"This would bring good people out of the shadows, so they can obtain higher education and add to the economy," Esquivel said. "The last thing we need in our community is youth that are stuck."

Though the executive order gave Lydia and others like her some hope, it's not a straight and easy path for the young adults. Since it's an executive order, not a law, it's not clear what could happen if Obama doesn't win re-election.

"I'm scared because what happens if the next president cancels it, and then we get deported or something like that," Lydia said.

Abby, a student and undocumented immigrant studying health sciences at the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence, has similar reservations.

"There's always a doubt in my head," Abby said. "But I also try to think, 'OK, it can happen,' and try to stay positive that everything will work out."

Both of the young girls have big plans for the future.

Abby wants to study nursing in college -- even if that means moving back to Mexico since she can't attend public universities in the U.S. The 16-year-old hasn't been to Mexico since she was 4, and says she'd have to relearn a lot of Spanish if that happened.

"It might be a little scary," she said of that prospect. "I don't remember much. I don't remember how it actually looks. I've forgotten everything."

If she could, Lydia would enlist in the Marine Corps, she said. She, too, hopes to study nursing. Ultimately, she wants to open a center to help young mothers learn parenting skills and build support networks.

None of those dreams can come true if the two can't gain legal status. Sometimes, they say, they wonder what it might be like if their parents hadn't moved them here -- would it be better to be in Argentina or Mexico and not have to worry about being deported?

But knowing their parents have struggled and worked hard to get them here is motivating -- it inspires them enough to keep working hard despite their struggles.

"When my mom talks about what she went through it makes us value the things we have here and the opportunities we have," Abby said. "We can't just throw them away."

Ultimately, this is their home, the girls say. They just hope to get the chance to keep it that way.

"I'd be the happiest woman ever," Lydia said at the prospect of living here legally. "I don't need a diamond ring or anything. I just need those words. I would feel so much safer."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

As population booms, Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in southern Beaufort County; June 16, 2012

Fiesta celebrates Latino culture, growth; June 18, 2012


Pew Hispanic Center: Up to 1.4 Million Unauthorized Immigrants Could Benefit from New Deportation Policy