Catholic Charities helps immigrant youth legalize status

| August 29, 2012 | 2 Comments

Rosa Zuñiga hugs Ixia Helmueller, program manager for Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services, after a meeting with Rosa’s son and two daughters about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program Aug. 22. Zuñiga, an immigrant from Honduras, has temporary protected status, but her children are undocumented. Her son Samir is in the background. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Samir Barrera has always had a passion for music. He plays piano and practices every day in a studio he put together in his home.

Barrera, 28, is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras living in St. Paul, and he was beginning to think he would never be able to go to college and realize his dream of becoming a professional music producer — until recently.

In June, President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It will allow certain undocumented young people to be temporarily freed from the threat of being deported to homelands to which they may have few ties, and get work permits. Applications were accepted beginning Aug. 15.

Meeting the need

Barrera is one of many young people who have come to Migration and Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis for help determining if they qualify for the program. According to Ixia Helmueller, program manager, there are about 9,000 young people statewide who could qualify for the program.

To qualify for the program, applicants must be under age 31 and have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday. They must be currently in school, have obtained a GED or been honorably discharged from the military.

Catholic Charities is planning one-day workshops on dates yet to be determined to screen applicants, help them fill out and submit paperwork and answer their questions.

The agency is in need of volunteers to help with the workshops, Helmueller said. Migration and Refugee Services is working with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to train staff and volunteers.

There is also a need for donations to cover the cost of submitting paperwork. The government requires a fee of $465 to process applications.

Catholic Charities staff members also will be working with Holy Rosary in Minneapolis and St. John the Evangelist in Hopkins — two parishes with a large number of immigrant parishioners that have asked for assistance in helping their young people determine if they can take advantage of the program, which would give them a renewable two-year reprieve and allow them to attend college.

A new life

Barrera came to the United States with his mother, Rosa Zuñiga, in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of their country.  His two sisters, Eunice, 19, and Kayla, 18, arrived in 2009 and also are being screened for the program. Eunice wants to attend college and study to be a criminal lawyer.

“I want to be somebody,” she said.

Her sister Kayla is interested in medicine and wants to work as a doctor or nurse. “This is a great opportunity for everyone who doesn’t have papers,” she said.

“Now that we have this opportunity, we don’t want to let it go,” Samir said.

“I think this will open the doors to their dreams to become professionals and be self-sufficient,” said Samuel Felix, Hispanic outreach case manager with Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services, who has worked with the family for several years.

Some undocumented immigrants are not so sure about the program. There may be some risk in coming forward.

“It’s probably going to be difficult for some because their [undocumented] parents may not want to be exposed,” Helmueller said. “You have to submit information about your family, who your parents are and when they brought you here.

Some might hesitate to do that,” she said.

“It’s a hard decision, but you have to live, you have to do it. If you want to be somebody out there, you have to do it,” Samir said. Kayla is more cautious. “It is a little frightening,” she said.

“Some are saying, ‘We’re so ready we don’t even worry about it anymore,’” Helmueller added.

Helmueller and the community she works with have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. “For me to actually be able to see this come true . . . I can’t put it into words,” she said.

The U.S. bishops are supportive of the program’s goals. Among those hailing the announcement in June was Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Migration Committee.

Helmueller noted: “We are about helping folks develop their human potential and also be able to call for justice in their communities.

“I strongly believe our involvement in this program exemplifies both,” she added. “These are our children, they have so much to offer, have showed that, and it is phenomenal that we in our agency can be a part of such an amazing country where we can correct things that have been identified as not right. To me that’s exciting.”

To volunteer or donate

Call Ixia Helmueller, program manager for Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services at (651) 647-3113.

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