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Dreams still in limbo for many young immigrants
Kennedy Holden law offices paralegal Maria Quiroz immigrated to the United States when she was under the age of 16 and was granted amnesty through the deferred action plan. The Department of Homeland Security offers deferred action to certain young people who entered the United States before the age of 16, are not considered a threat to public safety and meet other criteria.

It’s just another day at the office for paralegal Maria Quiroz.

Bright and personable, Quiroz works in the Gainesville-based Kennedy Holden Law Firm, which deals extensively in immigration cases. It’s a good fit for Quiroz, who went through the firm for her own immigration case.

She is one of the thousands of Hispanic immigrants affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a plan implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012 to grant temporary amnesty to immigrants brought into the United States as children. The president implemented the action through executive order after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Along with 557,412 others between Aug. 12, 2012, through June 13, Quiroz was accepted into the program and remains in the United States for now.

Most are accepted; 19,750 have been rejected. The program grants a brief reprieve for immigrants — two years — as long as they fit certain requirements. It’s not a guarantee, though, and deportation is always a possibility.

It’s a scenario that plays in the back of Quiroz’s mind from time to time, but it doesn’t seem like it could be real.

“It’s almost like, we don’t even see it happening,” she said. “But when it really hits you in the face, and you’re faced with ... something that you do, you have the chance to be deported. It’s like a rude awakening.”

Those who are accepted into the program receive a Social Security number, work authorization forms and a driver’s license.

It usually takes about six months for the application to be processed and approved, said immigration lawyer David Kennedy, Quiroz’s boss.

Quiroz and other applicants will have to go through the process again once the two years are over.

While the door remains open for her to remain in the United States for now, Quiroz has found many doors remain closed. For example, financial aid for college tuition isn’t available for her as a noncitizen. And, she said she still battles misconceptions and ignorance about her situation and background. She said it’s hurtful, especially as she identifies more as an American.

‘Feel like I’m in limbo’, citizen says

Quiroz, 28, came to the United States in the mid-1990s at age 11. Her father ran a successful business in Mexico City, but when the country saw an economic collapse and devaluation of the peso, it was either move to the United States or live on the streets.

Entering the country after securing visas, they first went to Chicago, where they lived for a few years. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly thereafter.

After his wife’s death, Quiroz’s father moved the family to Georgia. She graduated from Lumpkin County High School in 2003, and has been working ever since. Before joining the law firm, she worked in a restaurant, where she acquired an appreciation for the hospitality industry.

Her visa expired years ago, she said, after her mother died. She said that it was not possible to renew it without her mother present, so she remained in the country illegally, making the deferred action plan necessary for her to remain.

But though the United States is home, it’s also a place where she doesn’t seem to belong.

“I feel like I’m not from here nor there,” she said, with “there” being Mexico. “I feel like I’m in limbo. I’m not from Mexico because I don’t live there, even though I’m Mexican and I’m proud of it.

“This is something that we did not choose,” she added. “I don’t think anybody wants to go through the humiliation that some people go through of being here undocumented. Who wants to be in that situation?”

It’s a frustrating conundrum.

“The first thing I ever learned in English was the Pledge of Allegiance,” she said. “That was the first thing I ever, ever learned.”

Quiroz speaks assuredly, thinking carefully before she says something. She is hesitant to share her beliefs, because she doesn’t want anyone to feel like she’s disrespectful of theirs.

But she does feel some people look at immigration reform from a place of either ignorance or hypocrisy.

“They want to deport all of us,” she said. “Is that real? Probably not. We’re not going to leave. I feel they’re so very hypocritical when it comes to that. You want us to go, yet we contribute to you and your family and your society. We’re not invisible. We’re here, and we’re contributing.

“Do you eat vegetables with your food?” she continued. “Yeah, it’s most likely because one of us went to go get it for you. It’s frustrating, needless to say.”

Paying it forward

It’s something that’s always in the back of her mind. She said that she would like to get married and start a family some day but is hesitant to marry a citizen.

“I’ve always thought that I don’t want to marry someone, thinking I’m marrying them for the paperwork,” she explained. “It’s been difficult. I know some people don’t care, but in the back of my mind, I care.

“When it happens, it happens,” she shrugged.

Working in a law office, Quiroz clearly enjoys her job, though she says she doesn’t have plans to become a lawyer. If she does get the opportunity to go to college one day, she said she’d like to study political science.

For right now, her current status has inspired her to “pay it forward” to other immigrants seeking some way to stay in the country, whether it’s through the deferred action program or other immigration reform.

It’s not a permanent solution, but it does provide breathing room to a population that has found itself in a country that seemingly doesn’t want to be called home.

Quiroz does see herself becoming an official citizen one day, when the opportunity presents itself. Even if that day does come, though, it seems like she may always be on edge about her status in the United States, though she also has a lot of optimism.

“One of the great things about this country is that you get the choice to be who you really are,” she said. “Obama put a lot of hope in us by doing this and possibly passing an immigration reform.”