Krsna Avila has been a DREAMer for the past 23 years, and 10 months ago those dreams became a reality when he received his U.S. legal permanent resident status.
It took more than two decades of grappling with U.S. immigration laws to get his LPR, but Avila, who works as the legal services manager for Educators for Fair Consideration, an organization that helps undocumented students pursue academic and career goals, said the process has changed dramatically in the past few years thanks to the passage of the 2011 California DREAM Act and the deferred action policy.
The California DREAM Act --an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors - is a package of two state laws that allow minors who were brought to the U.S. under the age of 16 and have attended school regularly to apply for both state-funded and non-state-funded financial aid.
For the first time, Lake Tahoe Community College can offer Board of Governors Fee Waivers and other scholarships this winter to the college's 146 students who qualify.
That act combined with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that enables young undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits has helped many students along the path to citizenship, Avila said.
Avila moved to San Francisco, Calif., from Mexico when he was 4 months old, growing up in the Bay Area under a stigma he barley knew existed - that of an undocumented immigrant.
"I grew up thinking I was an American. I didn't know about my illegal status. When you grow up, you grow up with everyone else, playing the same games and watching the same shows," Avila said.
It wasn't until high school that Avila first experienced what it meant to grow up in the U.S. without papers. He wanted a car, but his mother told him he couldn't get one because of his status.
"I still didn't really understand. But it wasn't a big deal. I grew up here and no way was I going to be deported I thought," he said.
But when he enrolled in the University of California, Davis, the effects of the immigration laws started to add up. He'd applied for federal financial aid only to receive a rejection letter because of his illegal status. Avila didn't have the same documentation as his peers, and he found himself shut out of many social events. When Avila's parents - who had received their permanent residency status - and his little brother who was born in the U.S. visited Mexico, Avila stayed behind.
When Avila interviewed for residency, the interviewer hardly looked at him, he said. The time he'd spent in the country, his clean record, or the fact that he was brought to the U.S. when he was an infant didn't matter to her, and he left without the LPR because of uncertainties in his case, Avila said.
"It was emotionally devastating. But I never stopped to ask if I had another option. I didn't have those resources. And I kept thinking that there's no way this country would deport me. I've lived here so long," he said.
Thanks to the 2011 California DREAM Act and DACA, young immigrants now have more options available to them, Avila said.
In South Lake Tahoe, some of those opportunities can be found at the community college. Arturo Rangel, a California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program technician at LTCC, assists parents who receive temporary aid and works with the LTCC students who qualify for the state DREAM Act.
The new legislation will give undocumented youth a chance to pursue their academic dreams by saving some of the students about $2,000 a semester, Rangel said.
"We're going to recruit a population that thought they couldn't attend college, and it will make the college more diverse. It will attract those who decided to take a break after high school and it will invite students to start taking classes, either again or for the first time," Rangel said.
"I understand some people won't see it from my point of view. The only thing I can say is that it's a good opportunity for students who are highly motivated, want to finish college or transfer to a four-year university. And most of these students came to this country through no choice of their own," he said.
The laws haven't healed an endemic distrust of the government though, South Shore immigration attorney Kathleen Aberegg said. Several people have reached out to Aberegg, but they all shared a fear that if they revealed their illegal status for DACA, their names would end up on the deportation list. Since the deferred action policy is an executive order, there's no law that prevents immigrants who step forward from being deported. But Aberegg said so far the policy hasn't worked like that, and that the Department of Homeland Security simply doesn't have the resources to deport all the immigrants without papers.
"There's a lot of fear and distrust. They're used to living in secrecy," Aberegg said.
Aberegg, who currently works from an office on Emerald Bay Road, plans to move to Highway 50 this November to attract more clients looking to apply for work permits. She also hopes to start an Educators for Fair Consideration workshop, but she's waiting until after the election. Gov. Mitt Romney publicly stated he would revoke DACA, and Aberegg doesn't want to put time and money in a program that might only last a week.
Avila said his organization will continue to help and educate students no matter what the outcome of the election, and though he thinks DACA was a purely political move, he said it's still a positive step forward.
"Romney has mentioned a more permanent solution. But for me personally, I wouldn't take that risk. If a new administration comes in, it will be really devastating. Knowing that it's taken 10 years and this is the only federal progress we've seen, and it would be taken away just like that," Avila said.