BOSTON (AP) -- Olga Romero says she wants to live like other Massachusetts teenagers, with a driver’s license that would let her hop into a car and drive on a whim, a part-time job that would allow her to indulge in little pleasures, and security that comes from knowing immigration officials won’t storm her home and deport her to her native Honduras.
Romero cannot get a driver’s license or apply for a job because she’s been living in the country illegally for about 11 years. She came to the United States with her mother to join her father, who had left their home in search of economic opportunities when she was 7 months old.
Romero, 18, hopes things might change beginning Wednesday evening, when she joins hundreds of other Massachusetts residents expected to gather in Chelsea to learn how they can benefit from a new federal program that allows illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply to avoid deportation for at least two years and receive a work permit.
The meeting comes on the day U.S. officials began accepting applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is expected to directly benefit more than 12,200 Massachusetts illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. The largest New England state has the seventh-largest population of legal immigrants in the country, with about 320,000 people holding green cards given to legal permanent U.S.
The meeting in Chelsea is the first of three community forums in which immigration attorneys and advocates will explain details of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Federal officials have repeatedly warned that the process won’t lead to citizenship or give them permission to travel internationally.
Still, the program represents significant progress for Romero, who plans to fill her application with the help of trusted attorneys at the community forum.
"Because I came at such an early age, I’ve gotten accustomed to the country here and I’ve grown to actually love it," said Romero.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has excited Conrado Santos, who arrived in the United States with his parents and sibling nearly 12 years ago from Brazil at age 13, in search of economic prosperity.
Santos’ Student Immigrant Movement, a Boston-based group, joined community improvement and immigrant advocacy organizations, as well as Boston city officials, on Wednesday to announce the opening of free centers across the state that will help illegal immigrants file applications for the federal benefit. The first eight centers will offer legal and other services in East Boston, Lawrence, Lynn and New Bedford, Santos said.
President Barack Obama announced the plan in June to stop the deportation of many illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living here at least five years, and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They also cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
The paperwork for the program can be downloaded from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Applicants must pay a $465 fee and provide proof of identity and eligibility.
Proof of identity and eligibility could include a passport or birth certificate, school transcripts, medical and financial records and military service records. The Department of Homeland Security said that in some instances, sworn affidavits, signed by a third party under penalty of perjury, also could be used. Anyone found to have committed fraud will be referred to federal immigration agents, the department said.
A decision on each application could take several months, and immigrants have been warned not to leave the country while their application is pending. If they are allowed to stay in the United States and want to travel internationally, they will need to apply for permission to come back into the country, a request that would cost $360 more.
The Chelsea forum is co-hosted by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and youth social service agency Roca Inc. Other forums are scheduled for the Boston neighborhood of Allston on Thursday and the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield on Sunday.