WASHINGTON –– Potential applicants for the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals may be anxious to submit applications as soon as the system opens Aug. 15, but as the date approached, many issues remain unsettled.
At an Aug. 7 panel briefing, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will handle most of the applications, said many specifics remain to be worked out for the program that will allow certain undocumented young people to be at least temporarily freed from the threat of deportation and get work permits. The application itself would not be available until Aug. 15.
President Barack Obama announced June 15 that effective in 60 days the Department of Homeland Security would offer the chance for undocumented people younger than age 31 to request that the government use its prosecutorial discretion to defer deportation proceedings and give them work permits.
The program, referred to as DACA, applies to young people who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 and who meet various other qualifications such as passing background checks, providing proof of how long they’ve been here, and proof that they are in or have completed school or military service.
The program will, by administrative action, provide the possibility of a temporary fix for young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act, a long-stymied immigration reform bill that would give this group of people the chance to legalize their status and potentially work toward citizenship. They call themselves DREAMers and are among the most active groups preparing for the deferred action program.
Charles Wheeler, director of the National Legal Center for Immigrants of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, or CLINIC, said the network’s affiliated church-run immigration services are gearing up, largely by training staff and volunteers, to help potentially many, many applicants.
As many as 1.76 million people might be eligible for the program, estimated the Migration Policy Institute in a paper released at the Aug. 7 briefing. That would make it the largest initiative of the U.S. immigration agency since more than 2.6 million people were able to legalize their status under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The institute’s analysis boosted previous estimates of the potential pool of applicants by hundreds of thousands, after Homeland Security said people who are now younger than the cutoff age for DACA would be eligible once they turn 15. People who enroll in school or get a GED before they apply also will be eligible, making potentially 350,000 high school dropouts eligible if they return to the classroom.
While the 1986 law gave people permanent legal status, the deferred action program is just a temporary reprieve from deportation, for a renewable two-year period, Mayorkas emphasized. As an executive action by the White House, not a law passed by Congress, it does not confer permanent legal status or provide a path to citizenship.
In early August, Homeland Security released more details about the program, such as the types of documentation that will be accepted and answers to some questions, including the program’s cost — a total of $465 for the DACA application, fingerprinting and the application for a work permit.
But as demonstrated by questions from the audience at the Aug. 7 briefing, sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute, some things remain unclear.
For instance, an attorney for Casa de Maryland, an immigrant services organization, asked whether the background checks would tap information such as a gang-member database from Montgomery County, Md. Another questioner noted that sometimes people are included in such lists on the basis of their address or who their relatives are, not on an actual connection to a gang.
It’s also unclear how long it will take to process applications. Among other factors, Mayorkas said that will depend upon whether people rush to apply at the beginning or wait to see how others fare first.
That’s also a question for organizations that aid immigrants and for legal services agencies, which are gearing up for an expected flood of would-be applicants who need information and advice before they submit their paperwork.
Wheeler said an online screening tool will be available on the website of the Immigration Advocates Network, www.immigrationadvocates.org, a collaboration of CLINIC and other faith-based and nonprofit immigrant-aid organizations. There, the largely English-speaking and tech-savvy potential applicants can get a better idea of whether they are eligible for the program, he said.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, www.naleo.org, plans to open a telephone hotline that will help people find a suitable legal services organization, Wheeler said.
CLINIC’s website is loaded with materials for legal services agencies and information for potential applicants. A podcast posted on www.cliniclegal.org offers a wide range of issues for agencies to be considering.
The organization Dream Activist has compiled information from many organizations and posted it on www.dreamactivist.org. One blog essay on the page written by a self-described DREAMer and law student talks about the importance of consulting with legal experts, partly to be sure there aren’t better options for legalizing someone’s status.
“First, since June 15, 2012, dozens of DREAMers have walked into our immigration law firm,” wrote the unidentified blogger. “Close to half of them actually qualify for better relief than deferred action.”
He went on to describe lawful permanent residents who didn’t know they were already legal. “We’ve had cases of people who would not qualify for deferred action but are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status, and hence, a green card. We’ve had cases of people who’ve been victims of serious crimes and persecution, who would qualify for asylum. … We even had a case of a DREAMer who was actually a U.S. citizen because his dad had naturalized as a minor — he just did not know that he automatically became a U.S. citizen.”
And United We Dream has on its site www.unitedwedream.org a list of local town hall meetings around the country where potential applicants can get answers to their questions.