Bell High School senior Saul Barrera, 17, is one of the people who could benefit… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
Myriam Ortiz, who entered the country illegally with her parents 19 years ago, finally has a chance to get a job, thanks to recent changes in federal policy.
That prospect sent her to the Los Angeles Unified School District for the necessary documents — along with thousands of others, creating a backlog and new challenges for the nation's second-largest school system.
Ortiz is among an estimated 200,000 current and former students who are potentially eligible for the "deferred action" program of the Obama administration. Under it, immigrants 30 and younger can remain in the country and work legally for a two-year period, with the possibility of extensions.
"It was like a dream," Ortiz, 29, said, "the greatest news I'd heard in years."
But a bureaucratic nightmare loomed for L.A. Unified, which has endured deep budget cuts in virtually every department. Even before the first day that applicants could submit forms to the federal government — Aug. 15 — L.A. Unified officials had accumulated a backlog of at least 2,300 requests for records.
Applicants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals need to prove they've lived in this country continuously since June 15, 2007. If they attended district schools, L.A. Unified will provide a record of enrollment, along with listed addresses.
High school transcripts are available, too; applicants need to show they are attending school, received a diplomaor obtained a general education development certificate, or GED.
The Board of Education took action last week to help expedite the process. The board directed that all current requests be handled within 35 days and future ones within seven days, among other measures.
District officials said the school system has been working through such issues for several months.
The district hopes to provide records for free or at nominal cost. The federal government charges $465 per application, a sizable fee for many applicants.
The district expects to spend at least $200,000 in staff costs; in addition, employees have worked overtime to improve the system for records requests.
On Friday, officials alerted schools that applicants could seek documents online or fill out a form at schools that would be processed expeditiously at the central office.
"We're doing this to relieve individual school sites from having to complete these when they already have reduced resources," said Lydia Ramos, a special assistant to L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. Officials also understand the sense of urgency amongapplicants, who worry about their window closing should Obama fail to win reelection in November.
Last year, Bell High School received about 200 requests for transcripts. This year, it has surpassed that total just since July 1, Principal Rafael Balderas said.
Balderas asked his clerical staff to provide documents within 72 hours of a request, but he said the school is two weeks behind because "we are being inundated."
The estimate of 200,000 possible applicants is based on the number of students whose parents listed a country other than the United States as their child's place of birth. Some in that category are here legally, but it's also possible that some parents falsely claimed U.S. citizenship to avoid admitting they'd entered the country without papers.
Dropouts in this group now have an incentive to return to school or pass the GED, officials said.
L.A. Unified's adult education division is getting calls from about a dozen former students every day seeking information about the GED program, Executive Director Mike Romero said. Last year, before the federal policy change, 3,600 students obtained a GED through the adult division.
For this year, L.A. Unified slashed its adult school offerings by about half, on top of earlier cuts from past years. About 1,000 slots for GED preparation classes are being funded.
"We're pretty much filled up" for the current semester, Romero said. Because of widespread budget cuts, "quite a few school districts have closed the GED testing centers they offered through adult education. There are fewer and fewer opportunities."
Students can still take the GED through L.A. Unified without the preparation course.
Bell High senior Saul Barrera, 17, entered the country at age 10 after a 22-day ordeal traveling with his mother from El Salvador.
He remembers his birthplace distantly, as a place with family members and where he became fascinated watching airplanes. At Bell, he's a varsity athlete in soccer, track and field, cross country and volleyball. He's a peer counselor and takes a small business class, Advanced Placement English and honors government.
He's also mastered the electric guitar licks of Slash from Guns N' Roses.
Bilingual coordinator Luis Tejada said Saul reminds him of another student, a talented writer who learned to play classical piano by ear. Unable to work or pay for college, that student returned to Mexico, Tejada said.
Critics of the deferred action program have said it undermines U.S. immigration law and that people who enter the country illegally shouldn't be eligible for jobs that could otherwise go to legal residents.
Tejada sees it differently.
"So many of these are talented kids who go through our school system and have the potential to give so much," Tejada said. "They are so American."
Saul intends to major in science in college and to join the U.S. Air Force.
"I feel like doors are opening up for me," he said, "that I'm getting the opportunity I deserve, and I'll do something to show I want to become something in life."
Ortiz, meanwhile, earned a degree in child development from community college and got married. She's raising her 4-year-old and has volunteered in schools where she would have liked to work. Now, she said, she hopes to become a teacher or open a day-care center.
Request forms can be printed or completed online starting Monday at http://home.lausd.net/.