No amnesty, but Obama opens doors for Myrna Ortiz

06-16-2012, 01h59

Barack Obama doesn't know Myrna Ortiz. But she is one of 1.4 million people whose lives he changed forever Friday by ending the deportation threat hanging over young illegal immigrants.

The 21-year-old can now start a career, launch a business, drive a car, rent an apartment or just take an internship after Obama's announcement, which delighted crucial Hispanic voters ahead of November's presidential election.

Overnight, doors have opened that she feared might always stay closed.

"We don't know how to react, because we don't know how to feel now that we have the possibility of having a legal status in this country, to be able to work, to be able to drive," Ortiz told AFP.

"These are things we have always dreamed of, and now we see that day is closer."

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, she arrived in the United States when she was three years old, after her parents decided to try to make a better life over the northern border.

After going to school here, Ortiz studied political science at the University of California Los Angeles, but she gave up her course after coming up against too many obstacles.

Although Obama said clearly in his White House announcement that "this is not amnesty," nor a path to citizenship, Ortiz said she was optimistic, and now hopes to go back to college.

"It is a new push for me to continue my education, and other aims I have had. I want to explore different careers, jobs, to launch a small business with my family or friends," she said.

"But that was always only a dream, and now it may be a possibility."

The new scheme applies to people brought to the United States before the age of 16, who are currently under 30, are in school or have graduated from high school, or have served in the military and have not been convicted of a felony.

Although affected youths will be able to apply for work permits, they will not be granted permanent residence status or a path toward citizenship.

The measure could benefit up to 1.4 million people, 70 percent of them Mexicans, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, while official figures suggest it could open doors for at least 800,000 young people.

"Obviously, it's something to celebrate, but we are realistic. We have to keep pressuring the administration to actually implement what they have announced," said Ortiz.

The life of an undocumented student, as Ortiz has been, is complicated. In a sprawling city like Los Angeles, where a car is essential, not having a driver's license can be a major problem.

"Young people use public transport," she said. "But if one student has a license and goes to the same school as other undocumented friends, they get together to save on gas and expenses."

Ortiz added: "You have to navigate the educational and political systems... You learn to protect your identity, to avoid the threat being deported, and not put others at risk."

Above all, "we have to fight and find creative ways to work and make money to fund our education... You can't get a job through school, or take part in exchange programs or internships."

Neither could she rent an apartment, open a bank account or work, legally at least.

William Perez, a specialist in education and migration at California's Claremont University, said the new measures will give undocumented students "options which they haven't had before."

The changes will especially benefit those completing their higher education or those who have a degree but could not start their career because they could not obtain a work permit.

"The immediate impact of this policy is that many young people will want to choose professions in which there is currently a lack of workers, (such as) science and technology," he added.

"Not only will it change individual young people's lives, but they also, as a group, will increase their economic and social contribution."