LOWER EAST SIDE — Juan was less than a year old when he was brought illegally to the United States from Mexico by his mother, Claudia, nearly 23 years ago.
Since then, the East Harlem college grad has struggled, trying to find a job and build a life without legal paperwork.
“Everywhere where I ask for a job, they ask for some kind of documentation,” said Juan, whose last name DNAinfo.com New York is withholding because of his status.
But now, for the first time, Juan is preparing to apply for legal status in the United States, thanks to a new work permit program announced by President Barack Obama earlier this summer. The program allows certain young people who were brought to the country illegally when they were under 16 to apply for work authorization, which can be renewed every two years.
“This could be the opportunity!" he beamed, as he waited with his mom and hundreds of other young people and their families and friends for free immigration counseling at St. Mary’s Church on the Lower East Side Wednesday — the first day residents were eligible to apply.
“Today will be a life-changing day for so many young people all across the country who now have an opportunity to pursue their dream without the constant fear of deportation hanging over them,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which helped organize the legal session.
The city estimates that many as 50,000 to 60,000 New York City residents may be eligible for the authorization, with tens of thousands more across the state.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who was among a handful of pols who gathered at the church, said she was amazed to see lines stretching around the building, which she said looked like a free iPhone giveaway.
“This is what America is about. This is what New York is about,” she said.
Among those eager to apply was Christian, 47, who is hoping to get help for his two teenage sons, aged 15 and 18, who arrived in the U.S. from Chile 13 years ago.
“It’s not easy when you have a family. You don’t have too many opportunities,” said the Maspeth dad, who said he hopes the new permission will finally give his sons a chance to “live a normal life.”
“You are under the shadows for all these years," he said. "Now you can live again."
Also waiting for legal help was 17-year-old José, who was born in Chile and now lives with his mom and brother in Jackson Heights. He said being undocumented has been a cause of constant stress, affecting everything from his ability to work to where he went to school.
“I haven’t been able to travel, to see my family back in my country. I haven’t been able to get good jobs," he said. He could barely contain his excitement when he found out things could change.
“For all of these years, they wouldn’t do much. And now, finally — I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was real.”
But activists stressed that, despite the new program, they are still fighting for additional protections, including paths to permanent citizenship and opportunities for older, undocumented residents who may not have arrived when they were kids.
“This is not the Dream Act. It’s only a temporary solution,” said Diana Eusebio, a high school student and board member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, who is undocumented and plans to apply for the new work status soon.
Still, she added, “This policy will open up the doors that for so long were shut to people like me."
The City Council has dedicated $3 million to provide free legal services to young people eligible for the deterred action program to help clamp down on fraud.
Among the organizations offering help are:
Legal Aid Society, 111 Livingston street, 7th floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201. (212) 577-3300
New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) 7 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004. Hotline: (212) 613-6597 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Legal Services NYC:
Staten Island: 718-233-6480
City agencies, including the departments of education, health and the Health and Hospitals Corporation will also be available to provide school transcripts, inoculation records and other mandatory documentation. For more information, call 311 or visit nyc.gov.