By HELEN O'NEILL, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Angy Rivera glided through the airport as though she owned it, giddy with excitement at her brave new world.
Then she saw the security guards, and froze.
After a lifetime of avoiding any public place where she might be asked for identification, had she just made the biggest mistake of her life? Would she be stopped, arrested, detained — and deported? Nervously, she handed over her boarding pass.
The security guard barely glanced at her Colombian passport, questioned her about a tube of hair mousse — and waved her through. Elated, she boarded the plane.
"I am flying for the first time," the 22-year-old criminal justice student from Queens wrote, in a jubilant essay.
"I left something up in between the air and clouds," she wrote. "Not my luggage. Fear."
That pulsing fear that had part of her life for 19 years, since her mother brought her here from Colombia — gone, swept away by President Barack Obama's announcement in August that some young illegal immigrants would be allowed temporary status and work permits.
Now she could visit the Department of Motor Vehicles, just to witness the crazy lines her friends complained about. Now she could savor the simple pleasure of walking home at night without the nagging fear that any little incident might trigger her deportation.
This is the way it is for hundreds of thousands of young men and women who suddenly can be sheltered from deportation under Obama's policy. So far, about 180,000 have applied for the program, and nearly 4,600 have been approved, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; with a flick of a bureaucratic switch, young immigrants are coming out of the shadows.
But Angy Rivera is special. "Angy is our rock star," jokes a friend, Melissa Garcia Velez.
In the past two years, Rivera has become one of the most visible leaders in a nationwide movement of young people brought here illegally as children and fighting for the right to stay.
Along with Velez, she is a member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit, youth-led organization that fights for immigrant rights. Her funny, pointed videos about the perils of navigating a life that is "undocumented and unafraid" are posted on the Internet. Her "Ask Angy" advice column has counseled hundreds of young illegal immigrants on everything from dating to suicide; the BBC has done a short piece on the column, as has NPR.
But suddenly the star, the one who can always research the answers and write about them in pithy prose, is stumped. And scared.
After sitting down with a lawyer, she learned that not only is she eligible for deferred action — a murky status that allows recipients a reprieve but is not a path to citizenship — she might be eligible for much more. A deeply buried horror from her childhood, which surfaced during a rigorous examination by her lawyer, means she might qualify for a special visa granted only to victims of serious crime. And that could lead to a green card and citizenship.
The knowledge has turned Rivera's head upside down.
If she is no longer "undocumented and unafraid," as her T-shirt proclaims, then what will she become?
If she is no longer illegal, she wonders, can she continue to offer advice to those who are?
Can she remain a leader in an organization where a core belief is that all decisions, big and small, are made by young people living here illegally on behalf of those living here illegally? Those with any kind of temporary visa or permanent status are asked to leave the room.
"I won't want to leave the room," Rivera says, forlornly.
Growing up, Rivera's mother warned her never to go to an airport, or the department of motor vehicles, or even a hospital — any place where she might be asked for identification.
She couldn't go on trips abroad with friends, or fly, or drive. When she got older, she made excuses about why she couldn't go for drinks with colleagues after work.
Her mother, Maria, used fake passports to travel from Colombia when Rivera was 3. They settled in Queens and Rivera quickly adapted, acting as translator for her mother, excelling in school. Though she knew she "didn't have papers" as Maria put it, she didn't fully understand the implications until she was a teenager. As friends began applying for jobs and drivers licenses and college, Rivera felt stuck, left behind while others pursued opportunities denied to her.