Most days, Ulises Serrano spends an hour or so standing in his bedroom with a music stand on his bed and a viola tucked under his chin.
Above his bed, a row of album covers lines the wall — The Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Michael Jackson's “Thriller” among them. But Beatlemania isn't on the agenda today. The music filling the room is a viola suite by 20th-century Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch.
Serrano, 21, is studying music business at Oklahoma City University, where he'll be a senior in the fall. Eventually, he'd like to start a concert venue of his own — something like the University of Central Oklahoma's Jazz Lab or the Diamond Ballroom, he said.
“I've always loved music,” he said.
After a recent federal policy change, that goal may be within easier reach. An undocumented immigrant, Serrano received temporary work authorization earlier this year under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Last June, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not deport certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as young children. Under the policy, those who qualify may be granted a temporary work permit.
Under that program, Serrano is eligible to get a job, a bank account and a driver's license. But the authorization is more of a stopgap measure than a permanent solution — it doesn't grant Serrano full legal status, and it doesn't provide a path to citizenship.
Serrano, of Edmond, was born in the city of Chihuahua, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. When he was 10 years old, his parents brought him to the United States, where they hoped he and his younger brother and sister would find greater opportunities.
He's been able to take advantage of many of the opportunities his parents were seeking, Serrano said. His education at OCU is almost totally covered by music scholarships. Without those scholarships, it's unlikely he would be able to afford to go to OCU, where tuition, fees and other expenses can cost upward of $40,000 per year.
“There is no way,” he said. “It's ridiculously expensive.”
But not all undocumented students are as lucky. Undocumented college students — even those with deferred action status — aren't eligible for federal financial aid programs such as Pell Grants or federal student loans.
Undocumented students who meet in-state tuition requirements are eligible to pay resident tuition rates at Oklahoma's public colleges and universities. A law passed in 2003 guaranteed resident tuition for undocumented students, but that law was later amended, giving the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education the authority to decide what rate undocumented students should pay.
In that regard, Oklahoma's public higher education system is friendlier to undocumented students than those of some states. Arizona, Georgia and Indiana bar undocumented students from being able to pay in-state tuition. Alabama and South Carolina have laws banning undocumented students from enrolling in those states' higher education systems at all.
Out of the shadows
Serrano is the oldest of three children, meaning he doesn't have an older sibling to serve as an example on how to navigate the system. His sister Denise, 15, and his brother David, 11, hope to get similar scholarships when it comes time for them to go to college, he said.
“I'm just the guinea pig of the experiment here,” he said.
Although it doesn't solve every issue, Serrano said deferred action has made a difference in his life. He recently opened his first bank account, and he's gotten a summer job as a lifeguard while he takes summer classes at UCO. He's also studying to take the state driving exam to get his driver's license. A year ago, none of those accomplishments would have been possible, he said.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of Migration Policy Institute's New York University office, said deferred action can cause major changes in the lives of those who qualify. It brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, allowing them to live with a certain amount of freedom.
Undocumented immigrants who receive deferred action status can travel abroad to see relatives, take jobs using their own names and go to college without fear, Chishti said. They also can look at their futures with a certain amount of predictability that didn't exist before, he said.
Despite the potential benefits the program offers, it's seen fewer participants than officials had predicted. When the policy was implemented last August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated about 1.04 million people could be eligible.
But fewer than 500,000 undocumented immigrants were granted deferred action status as of April 30, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
Part of the reason for the lack of interest in deferred action could be the cost to apply, Chishti said. Applicants must pay a $465 fee — a hefty sum, particularly for people who may live in a marginal economic situation, Chishti said.
The program also doesn't include a deadline for applications, meaning people may be waiting to apply until they need to do so. Anyone who already is enrolled in high school or college or has a job may see the program as a needless expense, he said.
“This is kind of a needs-based program,” he said.
The fact that the program only offers a two-year reprieve also might discourage some eligible people from applying, he said.
Some people who don't need to change their status immediately may be waiting for a more permanent solution — one that doesn't require them to reapply every two years, he said.
But Serrano said he thinks the decision to apply was the right choice for him. For now, he said, he isn't worried about what happens in two years, when his status runs out.
“I was so excited about getting it, I'm not even worried right now about what (I'm) supposed to do afterwards,” he said. “There's always a way.”
I'm just the guinea pig of the experiment here.”
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