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United States

Illegal immigrants in US hope for legal status

Some 12 million illegal immigrants live in the US. They eke out their existence in the shadow of society. President Barack Obama intends to reform the country's immigration laws, fulfilling one of his campaign promises.

Hector Morales sits in front of a red brick building in Alexandria. It's the immigration office for Virginia. Hector has to have his fingerprints scanned as part of his application for a residence permit. The Mexican, who does not wish to disclose his real name, is one of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. He is a "DREAMer" - not only in the sense of someone dreaming for a better future.

DREAM is the acronym for the bill "Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors" proposed by the Obama administration. Illegal immigrants who originally entered the US as children thereby receive the opportunity to be declared "nonimmigrant." This would pave the way for permanent residency status.

Living illegally in the US

Hector Morales

Hector, not his real name, immigrated illegally with his parents when he was nine years old

A job, higher education or a bank account have all been inaccessible for 20-year-old Hector.

"There are not a long of things you can do when you live here illegally," he said. "I constantly have the feeling that I am simply stuck." Only a few of his friends know that he doesn't have any papers. The worst time for him was in high school, when he turned 15 ½ and would have been eligible to get a driving permit.

"That's the biggest thing in high school at that age because everybody's getting their permits," Hector said. "Everybody keeps asking 'when are you going to get it?' and you have to come up with excuses, so as not to tell them 'I can't get it because I don't have documentation.'" Hector drives nonetheless - without a driving license - and hopes that he won't get caught by the police.

"If the police stop you for whatever reason, they might just make a bigger deal out of it and turn your case over to immigration," Hector said. "Then you actually get deported in the end. You can try to convince yourself that you're living a normal life, but the fear of deportation is simply always there."

No more fear

In mid-June, President Barack Obama suspended the threat of deportation against hundreds of thousands of law-abiding immigrants who were brought to the country as minors. Hector handed in his application in August.

"One thing that I'm very clear about is that young people who are brought here through no fault of their own, who have gone to school here, pledged allegiance to our flag, want to serve in our military, want to go to school and contribute to our society that they shouldn't be under the cloud of deportation," Obama said.

Immigration authority building in Alexandria, Virginia

Illegal immigrants have to hand their applications in here in Alexandria

Hector is one of these young people and fulfills all criteria which keep him from being deported: his parents brought him to the US as a child, he has lived there for more than five years, he has not been convicted of any crimes and he can prove he has graduated from high school. Hector needs that to get a work permit. Until now, he has worked illegally: 11 hours daily in a fast-food Chinese restaurant.

"You can try to think it's normal but in the end, it's not," he said. "Normal people don't work all day from 11 to 10. They can go wherever they want. Someone who doesn't have documents or a license has to be careful of the decisions they make and have to think of the outcome."

The new regulation corresponds to parts of the DREAM Act, which Obama has been unable to get through Congress due to Republican opposition. However, some Republicans are now rethinking their objections as a result of the outcome of the presidential election. The president himself has admitted that it was one of his biggest mistakes in his first term that he didn't push more strongly for reforming the country's immigration law. Obama now wants to change this as quickly as possible. Immediately following his inauguration in January, the president wants to initiate a new bill in Congress. "Initial talks are already underway," he said.

Latinos as an influential minority

Most of the some 12 million illegal immigrants in the US are Latinos, like Hector Morales. They come from Mexico, Latin and Central America. At the same time, the some 50 million Latinos who legally moved to the US are the largest and most significant minority in the country. Two-thirds of Latinos eligible to vote cast their ballot for Obama - even though the number of deportations reached a new record under his administration.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 1.4 million people were deported in the past three-and-a-half years. But the hard line proposed by Republican candidate Mitt Romney was less appealing for immigrants. He had said during the campaign that they should "self-deport" from the country.

President Obama has already announced that the reform of the immigration law will include four major points. "I think whatever process we have needs to make sure border security is strong, needs to deal with employers effectively, needs to provide a pathway for the undocumented here, and needs to deal with the DREAM Act kids," he said. "I think that's something that we can get done."

Hector's appointment at the immigration authority didn't take long. He hopes now that his application will be approved by March. Then he could study medicine, which is his biggest dream, be able to apply for a job legally and finally get a driver's license. He hopes it will work out for him.

"I've been here for 11 years and I'm really used to the system here, to society here," Hector said. "And I've become part of it in a way. The only thing that keeps me from truly becoming part of them is the documentation part. Where I can't apply to any job I want like everyone else because of lack of documents."

DW.DE