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Door to opportunity opens for new grad

Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 9:40 p.m.

Cristian Sanchez, 22, was 5 years old when she left her native city of Guadalajara in 1995. Using the birth certificates of children who were U.S. citizens, Sanchez and her younger brother crossed the border at Tijuana with family friends.

That day is little more than a blur, she said. Sanchez’s parents crossed the border for a better life in the United States, as have so many other undocumented immigrants. Still, it’s been a struggle ever since.

“Even when we came to the U.S., we were pretty much low-income my whole life,” said Sanchez, who in 2008 was part of the first graduating class of Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa.

She was accepted to the University of California, Riverside, but because of her immigration status she had few options for paying the costly tuition and housing. She applied for scholarships, held fundraisers and took up a collection, but still came up short.

Until Lee Hunt stepped in.

While Sanchez was in high school, Hunt, an attorney who volunteered at RUP, had taken an interest in Cristian, who was one of the school’s top students.

“There was no way that she would be able to afford to go to a UC,” Hunt said. “A friend of mine and I just decided that she was a worthy student and that it would be great to help her out.”

Sanchez said that many of her classmates at RUP were in her situation, undocumented and from low-income families. Their academic aspirations are often tempered by what they can afford.

Hunt and her friend not only paid Sanchez’s tuition, they also paid for her housing and gave her a $500 monthly stipend for food and clothing. Sanchez repaid that gesture by earning her bachelor’s degree in public policy and graduating with honors, and Hunt says she couldn’t be prouder.

Sanchez is what’s known as a Dreamer, a term that refers to young undocumented immigrants who potentially qualify for the proposed Dream Act, legislation that would grant a pathway for citizenship to certain immigrants brought into the United States illegally as children.

Last summer, President Obama announced that Dreamers like Sanchez could apply for deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, a program that gives young undocumented immigrants a two-year reprieve from deportation.

Though it falls short of granting permanent legal residency or creating a path to citizenship, those who qualify are issued a work authorization card and, in some cases, can receive their driver’s licenses.

“They’re really just innocent,” Hunt said of the Dreamers. “To deprive them of the ability to have a livelihood and to be citizens seems very cruel.”

When Sanchez returned to Santa Rosa after graduation, she began working as an unpaid intern for an immigration attorney who could not legally hire her. When the Obama administration announced DACA last June, she checked her excitement.

“I didn’t jump because I was afraid of who would win the election,” she said. “If Romney won, I was afraid that it would trigger deportation hearings on me.”

Even with that fear, Sanchez applied on Sept. 20, setting in motion a review process that included filling out forms, getting declarations of support and submitting to a biometrics screening. Finally, in mid-January she received her work authorization card.

“I went to apply for a Social Security number,” she said. “Then I applied for my driver’s license once the Social came in the mail. Now I have my driver’s license.”

She said the process, though only a few months long, felt like a “lifetime.” Sanchez has since been hired as a paralegal and has plans to attend Empire Law School for her law degree. She said she wants to help others who are in her situation.

Hunt said she’s pleased that Sanchez wants to stay in the area.

“You can imagine being given a chance at life,” Hunt said. “She doesn’t have any debt. She’s got a real chance to do something and give back.”

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