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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Raul Perez, 27, with girlfriend Lyndsay Sheets, 26, came to the United States when he was 9 years old.

City resident, 27, welcomes new immigration policy

Raul Perez moved to the United States from Mexico with his parents when he was 9. At that time, everyone in his family applied for American citizenship.

Twelve years later, when Perez turned 21, he was still waiting, but the United States removed him from the wait list – he thinks. The rules have changed so much that he has heard different laws from different lawyers. Today, those on the citizenship wait list who turn 21 are removed, but Perez might be grandfathered in to the 1996 rules, when he originally applied.

There are a couple possibilities for him to become a citizen now, including marrying his longtime girlfriend, Lyndsay Sheets.

“If I was to get married to Lyndsay, it would take me six months to become a citizen,” said Perez, 27. “But that’s just a loophole. I feel like I should have to earn it. I don’t want to get married just because of that. I want to get married just like everyone else, because I’m in love.”

The policy President Obama announced Friday – partly achieving the goals of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path for young illegal immigrants to gain citizenship – has the potential to have an enormous effect on Perez, who seems as though the legislation may have been written just for him.

The act means Perez can apply for a work permit because he was brought to the United States before he turned 16, because he is currently younger than 30, because he has been in the country for more than five continuous years, because he has no criminal history, and because he graduated from a U.S. high school – South Side High School, class of ’04.

While the president’s announcement is open to all immigrants in the United States, the group that stands to be affected the most are Hispanics, the largest minority group in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. According to the 2010 census, 16 percent of the people currently living in the United States are of Hispanic or Latino origin; 8 percent of Fort Wayne identifies as Hispanic; and 6 percent of Indiana.

‘It’ll pay off’

Perez currently works three jobs. He is a photographer, primarily focusing on stage photography, though he has shot some weddings and quinceañeras. He works at a used cellphone store at Glenbrook Square. And he does home repair for Sheets’ father’s company.

But his driver’s license was suspended in 2007, when the rules changed to indicate that all drivers needed a valid Social Security number, which Perez does not have.

He just bought a 101-year-old historic home with Sheets, but his name is not on any of the paperwork. All the loans and applications needed to be filled out in her name, she said, because Perez is not a citizen.

Sheets studied Spanish for six years at IPFW, and today, she is a teacher at Willowbrook Day School. The school offered Perez a job, too, but he had to turn it down. In addition to the three jobs he does hold, Perez is also a part-time student at IPFW, studying graphic design. He is not a full-time student because he can’t afford it. Those five scholarships he was offered would have helped, but he is not eligible for scholarships.

“I try not to think about (not being a citizen) because it stresses me out,” Perez said. “I’m thankful I’ve been around a lot of people (who say), work hard, keep working hard, it’ll pay off.”

Cautious optimism

Perez is a man of average height with close-cropped dark hair, an earring and a patch of facial hair on his chin. As he chatted about his past on Saturday, he wore a white short-sleeved collared shirt with a white tie and jeans – he had just returned from his cousin’s high school graduation party, where he was a guest and the photographer.

He was about to spend this Saturday afternoon working on his and Sheets’ new home with her father, and to make Sheets more comfortable with the idea of taking her photo when she deems herself not photo worthy. The two sit on their front-porch swing, and they laugh at the awkwardness of trying to be natural.

When Perez’s parents split up in 2002 or 2003, his mother stayed in Fort Wayne with Perez and his siblings – she figured she and her children would have more opportunities in the United States – and his father moved back to Mexico. Perez and his dad kept in touch, talking on the phone every other week or so, he said.

In 2006, he found out his dad was in the hospital for kidney failure. He bought a ticket to go home, but on the drive to the airport, his father died. Perez couldn’t make his father’s funeral because the officials would not allow Perez to board the plane; he did not have a Mexican ID, and they assumed he was an American.

“I want to be as positive as possible,” he said. “I don’t hold any grudges. I don’t mind going through all this. I’m just thankful for the opportunity. I don’t mind proving myself. I’ve been proving myself since I got here.”

And while he expresses relief for this new ability to apply for a work permit, the relief is tempered by hesitation. He shares worry about what might happen if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected come November, if Romney would overturn the president’s order. Perez also wonders whether he’ll be able to get a driver’s license again.

Other local Hispanics share his cautious optimism. Ana Giusti, the Latina coordinator for Fort Wayne’s Center for Nonviolence, calls Obama’s policy “a door that is opening.”

“But there is a lot more to be done with this,” she said, adding that she wants to see this without any type of age restriction.

Max Montesino, a member of the Hispanic Leadership Coalition of Northeast Indiana and an associate professor at IPFW, calls the news excellent.

“We’ve been fighting for 10 years for something like this,” he said over the phone while on vacation, perhaps symbolically, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “I’m an educator, and I know the struggle of these youngsters in the United States.”

While the move wouldn’t affect any of Montesino’s current students, he said, it does affect the students he’d like to have, the ones who finish high school and cannot attend college.

“What President Obama did was just to scratch the surface in that regard,” he said. “In essence, (the order is) just a temporary relief for these youngsters. What we need to do is to actually enable them to get their green cards and be on a path that will eventually probably even reach citizenship.

“That is exactly for which what we are fighting.”