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Congressional staff jobs provide ‘dreamers’ a leg up to citizenship

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Two immigrants have gone from illegal to congressional in a matter of months.

Erika Andiola and Jose M. Quintero gained tentative legal status under President Obama's non-deportation policy for young adults that took effect in August, and both have been hired to work in district offices for members of Congress.

Coming in the middle of the immigration debate, the hirings are freighted with symbolism about the bargain Mr. Obama and many in Congress want to offer illegal immigrants: come forward, register and be given legal status.

"I wanted to show that it works, and what better way can we show [it] works than to hire one, and to pay them," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who hired Mr. Quintero. "What does immigration reform look like? It looks like Jose Quintero. He's got a job, he pays taxes."

Mr. Quintero and Ms. Andiola were two of the earliest recipients of a 6-month-old Homeland Security program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Under that policy, more than 150,000 illegal immigrants 30 and younger have been approved, granted work permits and told they are no longer in danger of deportation.

The policy helped push Mr. Obama to re-election last year and set the table for this year's debate on a broad overhaul of immigration laws, including trying to grant a full pathway to citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

But the deferred action was a test-run — a chance for legalization supporters to show immigrants the benefits of coming out of the shadow economy and to show voters the kinds of people who would be legalized.

"My hope was that by presenting this wonderful young man to the broader American community, the community says, 'You know what? I'm not afraid of him,'" Mr. Gutierrez said.

Known as Dream Act children or "Dreamers," after the never-passed legislation that would have legalized them, they are among the most sympathetic cases in the immigration system. They were brought to the U.S. as children and, in many cases, don't even remember the countries where they were born.

Mr. Quintero and Ms. Andiola took different paths to get to their jobs.

Ms. Andiola has been one of the most prominent advocates for Dreamers and established a reputation as an organizer.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, hired her last month to be outreach director, acting as liaison with a number of constituencies in her district such as labor, seniors, students, minorities and the environmental community.

"I didn't make a hire for any purpose of symbolism. I hired Erika because she's the most qualified person for the job," Ms. Sinema said.

The congresswoman said she got to know Ms. Andiola at Arizona State University, where she was a professor and Ms. Andiola was a student who put herself through school without the benefit of taxpayer aid because she was in the country illegally.

"It's stupid for us as a country to say we're not going to give you a job and put you to work," said Ms. Sinema, who as a state lawmaker fought Arizona's immigration crackdown.

Last month, Ms. Andiola made news when her mother and brother were picked up at their Arizona home by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, after they realized the mother had been deported once and had returned in violation of that order.

Ms. Andiola rallied immigrant rights activists and congressional staffers, and her mother and brother were released. ICE officials said they reviewed the cases and found that both were candidates for "prosecutorial discretion" — one of the methods the Obama administration is using to halt deportations of rank-and-file illegal immigrants.

Mr. Quintero earned his job in Mr. Gutierrez's office by being determined. He was one of the first people to show up to fill out his deferred action application at a clinic in Chicago in August. When he completed his own application, he stayed to help others — and kept coming back.

Mr. Gutierrez figured with expertise like that, it made sense to hire him to help with all the applications that are coming through the congressman's Chicago office.

Through Jan. 17, the administration approved 154,404 applications, out of 407,899 it had received. The pace of applications dropped off from more than 5,700 a day in September to fewer than 1,500 a day in January.

A Homeland Security official said the department had issued "some" denials, but didn't release the number. The official said to expect the denial rate to rise as more applications run through the process.

Under the process, the department will issue either a request for more information, which allows applicants nearly three months to comply, or a notice of intent to deny the application, which gives immigrants 30 days to respond.

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said by halting deportations, Mr. Obama has sent the message that violating immigration laws doesn't matter anymore.

"It's creating the perception of permanency, based on a temporary, and in our opinion, illegitimate stay of removal," he said. "There's no turning the clock back. The pressure is on now to provide full legalization."

Mr. Dane said that message is likely to spur more illegal immigration as people outside the country see those here illegally being allowed to stay.

"Deferred action was never meant to cover broad categories of illegal immigrants. It used to be something that was sought out in rare circumstances. It is now used as an entitlement that is demanded," he said.

The policy has created a quandary for states as well, particularly in the area of driver's licenses.

Most states have policies denying licenses to illegal immigrants, but it was not clear what status deferred action immigrants had.

California and other states moved quickly to issue licenses, but others such as Michigan and Arizona balked.

After guidance from the administration last month saying those who have been approved are considered "lawfully present," Michigan has changed.

Its secretary of state announced Friday that her state will begin to issue licenses, though they will be marked differently to make clear that they expire when an immigrant's two-year deferred action term has expired. State officials also said that marking should help prevent anyone from trying to use the license as proof of citizenship for voting.

Two states — Nebraska and Arizona — are still denying licenses, according to United We Dream, an advocacy group. The group has filed a lawsuit to try to force Arizona to change its policy.

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