Jackie Aruch, right, a law student, helped Maria Torres, who is originally from Mexico, with her application for deferred action
By KIRK SEMPLE
Chul Soo, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant from South Korea, has lived on the fringes of society in recent years, working off the books at a video game store and a beauty supplies wholesaler in New York City, carrying neither a driver’s license nor credit cards, and having little contact with the government.
Now he is applying for a new program that offers illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children a reprieve from deportation if they can demonstrate that they have been in the country since 2007, among other requirements. Yet Chul Soo, who said he arrived in 1995, is finding that he has little in the way of proof of his whereabouts for the last five years.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, referring to his effort to piece together a mosaic of records. “I really need this right now.”
Since President Obama announced the program in June, illegal immigrants across the country have been scrambling to collect evidence to qualify.
Their challenge is this: How do you document an undocumented life?
Applicants must prove that they were brought to the United States before they turned 16; that they have lived here continuously for the past five years; and that they were in the country and were under age 31 on June 15. They must show that they are enrolled in school or have graduated from high school or received an equivalent G.E.D. certificate, or have been honorably discharged from the military. An immigrant who poses a threat to national security or has been convicted of a felony, a serious misdemeanor or three minor misdemeanors will be rejected.
Some illegal immigrants have lived lives nearly indistinguishable from those of citizens, amassing school transcripts, medical records and bank statements. But many have remained under the radar, appearing rarely, if at all, on official or business records.
To take part in the program, many have had to retrace their often-circuitous and sometimes clandestine paths in the United States. Some have had to take the uncomfortable step of calling former employers to request affidavits attesting to their prior arrangements — at the risk of placing those employers in legal peril.
“One of the most striking things is the desperation and sadness when you’re talking to someone who absolutely qualifies but they can’t provide documents that prove it,” said Jacqueline Esposito, director of immigration advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group that has received about 1,400 requests for legal assistance since mid-August, when the federal government began accepting applications.
Chul Soo, who recently moved with his parents from Staten Island to Flushing, Queens, says he came to the United States when he was 10. (Chul Soo is his given name. Like other applicants interviewed, he requested that his family name be withheld because he was concerned that he was still vulnerable to deportation.)
His paper trail all but dried up after he dropped out of high school on Staten Island and got a G.E.D. certificate in the mid-2000s.
All he has to show are bits and pieces: a transcript from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which he attended for one semester in 2007; tax records from 2009, when he worked for a few months as a dental technician trainee using a relative’s Social Security number; recent pay stubs from his current job as a manager at an electronics company; and statements from a bank account that he opened for two months this year.
He is left with gaping holes for 2008, 2010 and 2011, and is working with lawyers at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, an advocacy group in Flushing, Queens, to fill them. He said he was considering approaching his two former bosses to request affidavits of support.
“I don’t know why I have to go through all of this,” he said.
For others, the process has been no more difficult than it would be for a citizen.
Hina, 22, a Pakistani immigrant who came to the United States with her family when she was 10, said she had the good fortune to have parents who saved everything — tax documents, school correspondence, report cards, medical records, utility bills.
She said the family stepped up the archiving in recent years in light of the debate over the Dream Act, which would give legal status to young illegal immigrants. (The legislation has not been approved by Congress.)
Still, she noted, her parents — illegal immigrants who do not qualify for the program — wondered whether their children’s applications might somehow lead to their deportation.
“But my parents finally decided that it was worth the risk,” Hina said. “They came here for their children. It didn’t make sense for all of us to sit here in the dark and wait this thing out.”
Last month, Hina submitted applications for herself, her younger brother and her sister. Her older brother applied separately.
But her experience seems to be relatively unusual.
Rigoberto, 23, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, arrived in the United States in 1995 with his family and has transcripts from the New York City public schools to establish his presence before he was 16 and for two of the past five years. But he lives with his father and works off-the-books in construction.
The only documentation he has from the past few years is a letter that he received from the Selective Service System a few months ago confirming that he had registered. He said he hoped it would at least show that he was in the country on June 15.
Rigoberto is considering asking his boss at a construction company to sign an affidavit testifying to his presence in the country this year.
“Do you think he would get in trouble?” Rigoberto asked.
Immigrant advocacy organizations around the United States have been swarmed by people seeking help with their applications to the new program, but lawyers said they were not entirely sure what the government allowed as proof.
The uncertainties, and the challenge of assembling the documents, may have contributed to a smaller-than-expected number of applications. Immigration authorities were preparing to receive as many as 250,000 in the first month of the program, but ended up with less than a third of that.
Applicants have been creative. Some have collated date-stamped Facebook photographs of themselves, said immigration lawyers and advocates. particularly those taken in front of recognizable American backdrops. Others have printed out records of activity on cellphone apps, like Four Square, and collected schedules and records of sports leagues in which they have played.
The Rev. Mark Hallinan of St. Mary of the Assumption on Staten Island said he had received dozens of requests for help. He and his staff have combed the parish archives for sacramental records of baptisms, communions and confirmations.
“There’s been a steady flow of persons coming in looking for, at minimum, a letter from me saying I recognize them as having participated in the life of the parish,” he said.
Yaida, 17, said that she was short just one document — a Mexican passport, to prove her identity — and that the quest for it had reopened family wounds.
Her father abandoned the family when Yaida was young. Her mother has been seeking to gain full custody over the children, but the process has been slow because Yaida’s father, who lives in Mexico, is not cooperating.
Unless her mother secures full custody, Mexican law requires that Yaida also receive her father’s authorization to obtain the passport. In the meantime, she waits.
“I have all the school papers, I have the doctors’ documents, I have church documents for confirmation,” she said, her voice trailing off. “I have everything except a passport.”
Luis, a 26-year-old Mexican immigrant, arrived in the United States in 2000 when he was 14, but his search has been complicated by moves and job changes and the fact that he has lived in both New York and Delaware.
He has pieced together a collage of documents from employers in both states, from G.E.D. programs and from a money-transfer company that he used to send remittances to relatives in Mexico.
One former employer at a restaurant in Delaware balked at his request for copies of old W-2 forms, Luis said. (He had been working and paying taxes under a fake Social Security number, he said.)
“He told me, ‘I don’t want problems, I don’t have time, I am busy, that was a long time ago, it will cost me some money,’ ” Luis recalled. But Luis lobbied him with e-mails, phone calls and faxes asking for help. The employer finally agreed.
“It was difficult, but now I am about to apply,” he continued. “I hope everything will come out right.”