PLANT CITY — Paulina Valanty arrived at the clinic for undocumented immigrants at St. Clement Catholic Church with more than a passing interest.
Valanty, 23, a law student at the University of Miami, used to live in the shadows, worrying about being deported.
"I was undocumented until I was 20. I was very afraid," she said. "Any time I applied for anything and saw that little box that says 'Social Security number,' I was afraid. It was nerve-racking just looking at it."
Valanty, who today is a citizen, regularly attends clinics like the one held at St. Clement on Tuesday to help young undocumented immigrants seek a change in their status.
Under a modification in federal laws last summer, undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children, brought by their parents, can apply for a deferment to avoid deportation.
Called "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," the new program is not the equivalent of citizenship or permanent residency, but it can mean the difference between working menial, low-paying, cash-only jobs with no health insurance and seeking a job with benefits, getting a driver's license, even going to college.
Valanty can relate. As a child, she emigrated from Chile with her parents and attended school in a Dallas suburb, thinking of herself as an American. But as a teen in high school nearing graduation, she learned that despite good grades she'd likely be unable to attend college, or get a job or a driver's license because she was undocumented.
"It really didn't matter how well I did or what my credentials were, I wasn't going anywhere unless I had papers," she said.
Finding work — a regular job with benefits — required a Social Security number. Getting to work meant obtaining a driver's license. Securing a loan, signing a lease, going to college or opening a bank account meant having some kind of legal identification.
The challenges were daunting, Valanty said. Her marriage to a U.S. citizen paved the way for her own citizenship three years ago.
At the clinic, which ran for two hours Tuesday afternoon, other immigrants showed up with similar worries seeking advice on how to obtain the deferment. They arrived in small groups, a handful at a time, some joined by their parents.
Valanty and about 20 others, mostly law students from the University of Miami and Florida International University, sat at long tables inside a multipurpose room to help them navigate the six-page application, spending up to two hours with each group.
The students are part of an alternative spring break program. Accompanied by four lawyers, they arrived in vans in the early afternoon after holding a clinic Monday in Naples. They chose Plant City for its proximity to Lakeland and Tampa, as well as the area's Hispanic population. Nearly a third of the city's 35,000 residents are Hispanic, not including its undocumented residents, according to U.S. Census data.
The students also plan stops in Orlando and Gainesville. They can earn college credit for the work, but say they're motivated mostly out of a sense of accomplishment.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application process is cumbersome and can take six months. Applicants must show they've lived in the United States for at least five years and are no older than 31, enrolled in high school, graduated or are working toward a GED.
The biggest obstacle is the residency requirement.
Benjamin Hughes, 28, a first-year law student at Florida International University in Miami, said he has heard stories of how young immigrants refused to sign leases, open bank accounts or seek a driver's license for fear of being found out and deported.
That can put them in a bind later and leave them scrambling to prove residency for the deferment program. Some turn to passports, even expired ones, old cellphone bills, school records, library cards, church records, medical bills, nearly anything to document residency, he said.
But the stories that trouble Hughes the most involve abused women who don't report their attackers because of deportation fears. They don't have money to leave because their wages are so meager, he said, and they're afraid to seek help. They can't get a better job with benefits because they can't prove citizenship.
"A lot of undocumented people live in fear," he said. "You can sense it when you sit down with them."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.