On eve of deportation-protection policy, immigrants, officials on their marks
Hundreds of thousands of young people who are in this country illegally are gearing up now to apply for deportation deferment once the Obama administration sets up an application process Aug. 15.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Over the last month, Jose, a senior at the University of Washington, has been documenting his time in this country — gathering school and medical records, his translated birth certificate, even trying to obtain his Mexican passport.
The 21-year-old, brought to this country illegally by his parents when he was 10, wants to be ready when the Obama administration starts taking applications on Aug. 15 for a program to protect people like him from deportation.
He's among nearly a million illegal immigrants nationwide expected to benefit from what's being called deferred action, a program unveiled last month by the Department of Homeland Security.
The program, expected to last two years, removes the threat of deportation for young people between 15 and 30 who have no criminal record and can prove they've been in the U.S. at least five years.
Those who qualify and can show a need to work will also be granted a work permit and Social Security number — documents Jose hopes would allow him to trade his job as a restaurant server for one working with children at a nonprofit agency after he graduates in the fall.
"My fear was of graduating and not being able to apply for a job anywhere," said Jose, a political-science student who asked that his full name not be used. "Without deferred action, I'd have to stay here (working in the restaurant) for a while."
Immigration lawyers and agencies that work with immigrants are gearing up for what they expect will be a flood of applications next month.
Program guidelines will be announced Wednesday, although immigrants can't apply for deferred action until Aug. 15.
In an internal document obtained by The Associated Press, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will process the applications, said it expected to hire 1,400 full-time workers and contractors nationally to handle the additional work. How many of them will be assigned to work in this state was not yet known.
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which works with immigrants from offices in Seattle and in Granger, Yakima County, said it will hire two temporary immigration attorneys — one in each location — to work specifically on these cases.
Additionally, NWIRP, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other statewide groups are planning a series of workshops to educate people about the program.
To be eligible, immigrants must have arrived in the U.S. before age 16, and must be in school, have graduated, obtained a GED or served in the military.
The program offers no path to citizenship.
The internal documents obtained by the AP indicated that young people may have to pay a $465 application fee. That revenue would help defray the costs of the program, which could run as high as $585 million, including salaries.
Ricardo Sánchez, chairman of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a Seattle program that helps create educational opportunities, said the deferred-action program will "make a world of difference for these young people.
"There are students with law degrees who can now fully practice law," he said.
"There are students with college degrees, master's degrees who can now go out and apply for work in their field of specialty," he said, instead of working on farms or in restaurants, "doing whatever low-wage job they can find."
Weighing the risks
Some Republicans and conservative groups, meanwhile, have blasted the president, calling the program irresponsible and politically motivated.
Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said these young illegal immigrants will be competing directly for jobs with young Americans and legal residents, a group, he points out, that is already disproportionately unemployed and burdened by debt. "Until now, the range of jobs available to (illegal immigrants) was limited to those employers willing to violate the law," Mehlman said. "Once this takes effect, you could have potentially up to 1 million people competing for any job."
Additionally, he said, the flood of new applications is sure to increase the backlog for processing the cases of immigrants who are seeking green cards and other legal immigration documents.
Jose, the UW student, said many young people are weighing the programs' benefits against its risks.
Not knowing whether the program will survive after two years is a key concern, he said, particularly if Obama does not win re-election in November.
The biggest worry young people have, he said, is turning over to the government, as part of the application process, the addresses and other identifying information of family members — particularly parents, who may also be in the country illegally.
Those fielding these questions are responding cautiously, knowing they can't offer any guarantees.
Immigration attorneys have told the administration that if officials want a robust program, they need to offer some confidentiality protection.
"The important thing will be an individualized assessment of their situation and whether the benefits outweigh the risks," said Jorge Barón, executive director of NWIRP.
"If a person clearly meets the criteria, has no criminal or prior record and their parents have no immigration history, I would say the risks are pretty low — even under a new administration."
To be clear, the program is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, Baron pointed out.
In fact, he said, U.S. Border Patrol officials pointed out during a conference call last month that they will continue to detain individuals and turn them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for possible deportation.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said immigrants would generally not be detained while their applications are pending.
"This is not the government saying they will not deport you over the next two years," Baron said.
"I would expect that if a person is in deferred action and is convicted of a crime, that's something that could disqualify them."
Jose said he wants a job that will allow him to work with and mentor young people.
Because he doesn't live with his parents, he doesn't have to divulge their address, but his younger sister may have to.
"Our family is in the process of obtaining documentation, but that takes forever," he said. "The way we see it, if they want to come after us, they will, no matter what."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.