Thousands of young people in the U.S. illegally will have a chance to earn a temporary reprieve starting Wednesday when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy takes effect. (File photo by Tarmo Hannula).
WATSONVILLE — Thousands of young people in the U.S. illegally will have a chance to earn a temporary reprieve starting Wednesday when a sweeping immigration policy takes effect.
The policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, will grant two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to young illegal immigrants who meet a certain set of requirements.
Immigration attorneys and officials nationwide are bracing for an estimated 1.5 million people who may now be eligible to change their immigration status.
In Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Benito counties, that number is estimated to be 11,000, according to Doug Keegan, program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project.
“We’re getting a lot of requests for information,” he said. “It’s going to be a tremendous benefit to many young people in our area.”
The policy could be a boon for the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school every year but whose status makes it difficult to get a job, pursue higher education or join the military.
But even as potential applicants are pulling together the massive amount of documentation required, skeptics are worrying that those whose illegal status has until now been kept secret will become known to immigration officials and possibly face legal consequences.
The future of the policy is also unclear because of the upcoming presidential election. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. Also called the DREAM Act, legislation that would establish a path to citizenship for eligible immigrants. That has been in the works since its inception in 2001 but never enacted.
In response, President Barack Obama on June 15 introduced the Deferred Action plan, which he stresses is not a pathway to citizenship.
Instead, the new policy is a temporary measure for young people who call the U.S. home but currently have little legal recourse to remain here because they immigrated with their parents when they were young.
Don Lyster, DC Director of The National Immigation Law Center acknowledged in a Tuesday morning press conference call that Romney may overturn the policy if elected, but will not likely go after the people already benefitting from it.
“That would be political suicide,” he said.
Lyster added that participants attending a four year university may reapply after the two-year expiration.
Romney also has said that he advocates policies that make it difficult for illegal immigrants to find work, thus encouraging them to “self-deport.”
“I think people are very excited and hopeful but at the same time a bit wary because they are not sure where this will lead,” Keegan said. “Will there be unintended consequences further down the road?”
To qualify for the Deferred Action program, immigrants must be 15 to 30 years old and must have arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16. They must be enrolled in school, be a high school graduate or have a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Armed Forces. Also, they must have resided in the U.S. for five years and have no significant criminal record.
Keegan said anyone who is considering applying for the deferred immigration status should consult a “trusted and competent” law office to help them navigate the onerous paperwork required, which includes proof of residence, proof of enrollment in school and a criminal background check, in addition to the fees and forms that won’t be made public until Wednesday.
Additionally, Keegan warned applicants to avoid “notorios,” “immigration consultants” or anyone else offering help without the necessary expertise.
Watsonville attorney Ariadna Renteria said lawyers and others who help with immigrant issues are “gearing up for a massive number of applicants.”
The task will be a Herculean one, with each case needing to be decided on its individual merits, she said.
Worse, while immigration officials have said that the application information will not be shared with law enforcement officials, the United States Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made it clear that it plans to pursue fraudulent applications.
Anyone deemed to be a threat to national security or who has a criminal record will also be investigated, which could lead to deportation.
“Basically you will be surrendering these people to immigration,” Renteria said. “There is a veil between the applicant and the system, but to me that's way too thin to make it a safe shield.”
Renteria said she has seven clients waiting to begin the application process, and has fielded calls from dozens of others.
Maria Duque, who adressed the media in a Tuesday conference call, said she was 5 when she moved to the U.S. from Ecuador.
After graduating high school with high honors, she now plans to attend UC Los Angeles in the fall.
The Deferred Action program, she said, will allow her to continue her education.
“It is a very sweet moment in my life,” she said. “I feel like an American citizen. I feel like this is my home, and being able to provide back to my country is very close to my heart.”
Local immigration attorneys will hold an informational forum about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Aug. 26 at 2:30 p.m. at Pajaro Middle School.
Anyone needing help filling out forms may attend a forum on Sept. 15 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the gymnasium of Moreland Notre Dame School.
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