For more than 24 years Maria Caba lived in New York City as an undocumented resident. For most immigrants living without papers, this means living a life of fear, where one is constantly plagued by the anxiety of being “found out,” and sent to a country that is no more their home, than any other foreign place. The invisibility and fear that comes with undocumented status prevents people like Caba from being able to take advantage of opportunities that would propel their lives forward, despite being in the United States from a young age.
President Barack Obama recognized the uniqueness of this situation in 2012 when he announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program offers work authorization, a Social Security card and temporary protections against deportation for certain people who immigrated to the United States before their sixteenth birthdays.
Now two years after the introduction of DACA, the city is revamping their efforts to raise awareness about the program in the hopes of attracting the city’s undocumented youth to enroll in the program. The campaign, which launched June 2, includes advertisements appearing in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole throughout the five boroughs. The ads have been placed in 2,000 subway carts and 80 bus stops in various key immigrant neighborhoods. The city also launched online tools to help immigrants determine whether they are eligible for DACA.
“DACA has already helped tens of thousands of New Yorkers gain crucial benefits,” Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, said. Through the program, recipients are also able to receive access to public health insurance programs and receive in-state-tuition rates at CUNY.
“The city wants to help the thousands and thousands more immigrant youth who stand to benefit from DACA,” she said.
“Despite a significant $18 million city investment in funding to legal, literacy, and outreach providers to support potentially eligible immigrants in applying for DACA, more than half of the approximately 79,000 potentially eligible immigrants in New York City have not yet applied,” OIA said in a statement.
It’s estimated there are 75,000 to 125,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants in the country, with a majority of the population concentrated in Florida, Massachusetts and New York, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. There are about 94,000 foreign-born Haitians living in New York City.
The city’s DACA application numbers are considerably less compared to the rest of the country. Fewer than 34,000 applications have been submitted as of March 31, 2014, putting the application numbers at less than 43 percent compared to the estimated application rate of 51.8 percent nationwide.
“New York City’s lower application rate is due to a range of factors,” OIA said. The misperception is that DACA is only for college-bound young people. “In New York City, the eligible population is far more diverse than the cap-and-gown imagery that has dominated the messaging on this program.”
For Caba, one chance encounter changed her life in a matter of weeks. In less than six months, she went from an undocumented New Yorker without access to a driver’s permit, work authorization card or Social Security number to director of operations at Atlas: DIY, an empowerment and resource center for immigrant youths. Headquartered in Brooklyn, the center serves as a resource center where young immigrant have access to free legal services, language classes and college prep courses.
In her new role, Caba works to serve the same children whose shoes she was once in. DACA “offers you a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, and a sense of empowerment,” she said. “Through this awareness campaign people will see that help is available for them. They just need to speak up and ask for it.”
By Vania André
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