Tens of thousands of undocumented children and young adults, many living in California, are expected to start submitting applications to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a bid to remain in the United States on a semi-legal status. DHS posted the form and regulations online yesterday morning, in preparation for today’s official launch of President Obama’s Deferred Action Program.
After many failed attempts by Congress to pass a DREAM Act, the President asked DHS to develop a policy for allowing some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to get a two-year deferral from the possibility of being deported to a country most of them don’t remember. Unlike the DREAM Act bills, this policy does not include a path to citizenship.
There are five minimum requirements that applicants must meet to be considered:
• came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
• has continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding June 15, 2012;
• is currently in school, has graduated from high school, has obtained a general education
development certificate, or is an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or
Armed Forces of the United States;
• has not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple
misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety;
• is not above the age of thirty.
Over the past few weeks, DHS has clarified and refined the guidelines.
“There were actually some pleasant surprises,” said Joseph Weiner, a staff attorney in the Immigrant Rights Project at Public Counsel Law Firm. He said the Department broadened the requirement that applicants be enrolled in an educational program to include English as a second language, GED programs, vocational and career training, and other programs as long as they’re designed to lead to college, job training, or a job.
Weiner is also pleased that the DHS cleared up confusion and relaxed the list of crimes that would automatically disqualify someone from receiving the deferral. The general categories include any felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three small misdemeanors. That last one, in particular, had people worried about how the Department would classify crimes such as marijuana possession, which is common among teens, and driving without a license, which is common among undocumented teens who can’t get drivers’ licenses. The new regs give both of those a pass, unless they’re accompanied by a jail term of 90 days or longer.
During a telephone conference call with reporters last week, Alejandro Mayorkas, the Director of U.S.Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), tried to assure prospective applicants that the information they put on their forms would be kept confidential. “Information used in the request will not be used for immigration processes, unless you lie to us, or pose a national security threat,” said Mayorkas. “We want to maximize participation from those who meet requirements; we don’t want a chilling effect.”
But there are a few caveats. Convictions for selling drugs, DUI, gun crimes, sexual battery, domestic violence, and committing fraud on the deferred action application are all grounds for automatic disqualification and the possibility that a file would find its way to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“If somebody has a conviction as an adult that would be a significant misdemeanor under the guidelines that they’ve set forth, I would advise them not to apply,” said Weiner, explaining that those folks could be flagged as a potential threat to public safety. Page four of the application makes it clear that Homeland Security is serious about that threat. In addition to name, address, and highest level of education, the Department wants to know about criminal past…and future. “Have you ever engaged in or plan to engage in terrorist activities?” “Have you ever engaged in, ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in any of the following: Acts involving torture, genocide, or human trafficking? Killing any person? Severely injuring any person? Any kind of sexual contact or relations with any person who was being forced or threatened?
Public Counsel is running a clinic in Los Angeles starting today, to help qualified people complete their applications. Weiner said a big challenge for many applicants will be proving that they’ve lived in the United States continuously since 2007. So far, DHS hasn’t been specific enough on what documentation they’ll accept. “School records are great, but if you’re 29 years old and you’ve been out of school for five years, what do you do?,” asked Weiner. Pay stubs are generally accepted as proof of residency, but undocumented immigrants are often paid under the table since they can’t legally work. Even utility or cell phone bills may be a challenge for people who have spent their lives in the United States trying to remain anonymous.
The other unknown is how long it will take for DHS to process the applications. Mayorkas said the Department has been hiring additional staff so the Department isn’t caught short. Their salaries – in fact, the entire program – are funded through the $465 application fee, which includes fingerprinting and other biometrics and the cost of a work authorization, which could provide these young adults with legitimate pay stubs to use when they have to reapply two years from now.