Alaska organizations helping families take advantage of the president's immigration policy said many more young people may be eligible for benefits that include the right to legally drive and work, as well as protection from deportation.
One beneficiary is Daniel Luna-Sanchez, 16, brought to Alaska as a toddler by Mexican parents who remained illegally. He said he signed up so he could get a job and save for college.
"I knew if I wanted to do something with my life, I had to do this" and become eligible to work, said Luna-Sanchez, a West High School student recently hired at J.C. Penney.
Luna-Sanchez spoke to a reporter on Monday at a press conference organized by the Mexican Consulate in Anchorage. The event marked the third anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive action shielding many children of illegal immigrants from deportation and leading to other benefits.
The consulate held the event to highlight the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). An estimated 400 young Alaskans from a variety of nationalities are thought to meet the requirements, which include being born after June 15, 1981, but have not applied, officials said.
Marisela Quijano, the acting consul in Alaska, said legal help on navigating the process is available through the Alaska Institute for Justice. Also, the Alaska Literacy Program and the Adult Learning Center provide skills leading to a GED, or high-school equivalency certificate, that can help with obtaining the DACA status.
Because the consulate contracts with those organizations, Mexicans receive reduced rates for those services, said Norma Sanchez-Arrellanes, in charge of legal affairs for the consulate. The consulate will offer advice to non-Mexicans trying to navigate the DACA process, but not economic support.
Robin Bronen, executive director of Alaska Institute for Justice, said it's believed that nationally only half of those eligible have applied.
"One of the great benefits people get is not only immigration documents, but driver's licenses and a Social Security number and those things that I think U.S. citizens take for granted that provide us with the means through which we can live and support ourselves," said Bronen.
Nationwide, more than 500,000 Mexicans have applied under DACA but many more have not, said consulate officials. Sanchez-Arrellanes said the policy has important economic benefits in Alaska and nationally.
"People can get jobs and be better educated. That's good for the economy," she said.
In Alaska, just a handful of young Mexicans have taken advantage of the new rule through the consulate, she said. Some may be afraid a future president will reverse Obama's executive action. An expansion of the action issued by Obama last fall is being challenged in courts in a Texas-led lawsuit involving 26 states -- but not Alaska -- under claims that Obama exceeded his presidential authority.
The consulate's legal experts believe families won't suffer negative consequences if the policy is changed, Sanchez-Arrellanes said. Those who receive DACA status today might later essentially be grandfathered in, allowing them to indefinitely continue working in the U.S. as long as they remain law-abiding residents, she said
Though it doesn't confer citizenship, DACA might one day become a step to that status, Sanchez-Arrellanes said.
Luna-Sanchez, who is not related to Sanchez-Arrellanes, said he's hoping to become a U.S. citizen someday.
He said he's saving the money from his new job to study engineering in college, possibly at Stanford. He figured out on his own how to receive approval under DACA to be allowed to work. It wasn't difficult but it probably would have been easier through the consulate, he said.
He said he believes the policy is a good thing for Alaska because it allows people to work and help the economy.
"I see only good coming from this," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing