Francisco Gutierrez was just awakening on the morning of June 15 when he heard the voice of a newscaster blaring from his television. Once he caught the phrase “Dream Act,” he jolted alert. Gutierrez took the logical step that most college students would—he logged onto his Facebook account. There the rising senior at Georgetown University discovered a barrage of messages on his newsfeed, including one saying that President Obama was slated to make a speech on immigration reform at 1:15 p.m.
The speech, in fact, began 49 minutes late, and Gutierrez became more anxious as the time ticked away. When President Obama finally took the podium, the college student’s fears subsided. The announcement was news Gutierrez had waited six long years for—the president was immediately ceasing the practice of deporting undocumented youth, and giving them the opportunity to stay in the country conditionally.
For 20-year-old Gutierrez, the policy changes couldn’t come at a better time, less than a year before he is set to graduate. Gutierrez was born in Mexico, and brought to Brooklyn as a two-year-old. Like his parents, he is an undocumented immigrant. Before the president announced his reforms, Gutierrez’s future was unclear at best. Without a Social Security number, securing a job using his marketing degree would be almost impossible. The Park Slope resident was even considering moving back to Mexico.
“I was ready to leave back to a country that I am not familiar with,” said Gutierrez. “I speak Spanish, but not completely fluently, and I don’t really know much of the culture there. So, it was going to be a hard culture shock moving to Mexico, had that been the case. But now that I know I can stay here for a few more years. Potentially.”
Gutierrez typifies the approximately 800,000 young people who will be eligible for relief under the Obama plan. About 146,000 undocumented young people live in New York City, according to the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an advocacy group comprised of undocumented young people, although it is impossible to determine how many of them meet the exact criteria of the plan.
The policy changes apply to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 and are still under the age of 30. They have to have resided in the country for at least five consecutive years, have no criminal record and either graduate with a high school diploma, or obtain a GED. Additionally, the policy applies to anyone who serves at least two years in the military. Those eligible under the guidelines can also apply for a two-year work permit, with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.
The Obama administration’s immigration reform is not the Dream Act. The Dream Act, a bill first introduced to the Senate in 2000, would provide conditional permanent residency to some of the 800,000 undocumented youth nationwide. While there are similarities, in terms of the eligibility requirements, the current policy changes will only provide a work permit.
“Now, let’s be clear, this is not amnesty,” President Obama said in a speech announcing the plan. “This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the — it is the right thing to do.”
Gutierrez is the archetype of a talented and driven young person. He graduated as the salutatorian of the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2009, and received a full academic scholarship to Georgetown University, an academically elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C.
Gutierrez did not realize he was undocumented until his sophomore year of high school. While applying for a summer internship program in Massachusetts, he first encountered paperwork asking for his Social Security number.
“I didn’t know what to fill out,” Gutierrez recalled. “I ran to my mother like, ‘Hey, what’s my Social Security number?’ and she said, ‘Well you don’t have one.’ And at the time I didn’t understand what that meant, so I asked her, ‘Well can I get one?’ thinking that it was that easy.”
Once he was aware of what his citizenship status meant, Gutierrez felt as if he had hit a dead end. “My dreams kind of shattered,” said Gutierrez. “I was expecting to attend one of the most prestigious schools, and I mean I am now, but thinking back as a sophomore, at that second, I thought that was impossible. I was crying for a few nights. I didn’t really know what to do about it until I had the courage to talk to my high school counselor.”
With the support of his guidance counselor, principal, and teachers, Gutierrez was able to navigate the challenges of applying to college without a Social Security number. During his college years, Gutierrez became an activist for the undocumented youth. He co-founded the Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition, a group that educates local undocumented students on their rights. He also founded Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, a Dream Act advocacy group, at Georgetown University. Gutierrez, who was once shy, and ashamed of his status, is now open and honest.
“I was afraid before,” admitted Gutierrez. “Once I visited Maryland with friends. We were in a car, about to park and in front of us a few cops were inquiring at a small venue, where one of my friends was celebrating his graduation party. I have never been so scared in my life. I seriously dreaded being asked for my identification.”
Among the communities of undocumented immigrants, there is a lot of uncertainty about exactly what rights they hold. Recently, Gutierrez took his first plane ride to California to visit his older sister and only sibling, whom he had not seen in almost 11 years. He knew he was taking a big risk— there is always the chance of being stopped by immigration officials.
“My parents were terrified,” said Gutierrez. “My dad thought he would never see me again, I mean he thought I was going to get deported at the airport! My mom couldn’t sleep for the first few nights when I was in California. She was happy I had made it through the airport, but she was still very worried about me–especially because I still had to make that flight back home.”
Studying abroad for a semester during his junior year of college was out of the question for Gutierrez. Compared to his classmates, he faced obstacles and risks while applying for summer jobs and internships. He attended the Fashion Institute of Technology for a semester as a study-abroad alternative, and then took an unpaid internship with Kenneth Cole’s marketing department.
“I was slightly upset that many of the internships I did were unpaid,” said Gutierrez. “It was very troubling to hear friends and peers say that they would never work for free. Many of them didn’t know that I am undocumented.”
Gutierrez is thankful he had his family to help him out financially while taking on unpaid internships. His mother works in cleaning services, and his father has been unemployed for the past decade, due to a work-related injury. Gutierrez says his parents wanted him to focus on school, but he knows that will all change once he enters the real world.
Right now, Gutierrez is just looking forward to his senior year of college, and searching for employment after graduation. His dream job is to work for the international marketing and advertising firm, Ogilvy and Mather. He also aspires to someday design menswear and shoes.
He’s not sure exactly what the next steps are, in terms of applying for a work permit. “I used to say my future was kind of blurry,” said Gutierrez. “We don’t really know what is going to go on. But now, I have an idea of what could go on.”