Hundreds of thousands of undocumented students and young adults in California, brought to this country when they were very young, will learn a little more today about their likelihood of remaining in the United States legally for at least two years.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, is releasing some additional answers to its list of frequently asked questions about President Barack Obama’s deferred action plan. On June 15, after years of failed attempts by Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, commonly known as the DREAM Act, the President authorized Homeland Security to develop guidelines for some undocumented children, teens, and young adults to apply for a deferral from deportation.
Individuals who meet the criteria [see box] will be able to apply for a temporary work permit, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license or state ID.
“The students that I’ve been in touch with are very excited; they see this as a big breakthrough, the first substantive change in immigration policy in many, many years,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, which provides information and advocates on behalf of undocumented students.
The federal government will begin accepting applications on Aug. 15, two weeks from today, but as yet hasn’t published the application form or any detailed guidelines beyond the basics. The big questions that aren’t answered in the current FAQs are how much will it cost and how stringent will the government be about eligibility requirements?
Legal and financial hurdles
Cost is a huge factor for undocumented people, who typically earn low wages and get paid under the table for their work. The program is supposed to be self-supporting, and Homeland Security has said it will need to hire about 1,300 employees to handle the extra load. Homeland Security documents labeled “not for distribution,” which were obtained by the Associated Press, estimate the application process alone could run as high as $465 a person. It’s not clear if that includes the $85 fee for a background check and the $380 fee for obtaining a work permit.
Luis Serrano still owes $350 to Los Angeles Community College for his last semester. Laid off from a job he held for three years, and not eligible for unemployment insurance due to his status, the 24-year-old had to leave school and his apartment before finishing his degree. He has been on his own for several years.
“I was forced to move out [of his parents’ home] when I was 19, so pretty much I had to get any job I could to pay for school, and I couldn’t take many classes because of work and money,” said Serrano.
A work permit, it he can afford it, would allow him to get a higher-paying job so he can finish community college and transfer to a four-year university. Serrano wants to become a history teacher.
On the surface, Serrano appears to be a model applicant for the deferred action plan. A cousin brought him across the border from Mexico when he was 7 years old to be with his parents, who were already here. He dropped out of high school to work, but has since earned a GED. Serrano also seems to have dodged a possible snag. A few years ago he was pulled over for driving without a license, but a judge dismissed the ticket when the traffic court couldn’t find any record of it.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of otherwise eligible applicants may not be so fortunate. The regulations disqualify “individuals who have been convicted of any felony, a significant misdemeanor offense, three or more misdemeanor offenses not occurring on the same date and not arising out of the same act, omission, or scheme of misconduct, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.”
A significant misdemeanor includes a DUI conviction and any crime involving assault, theft, burglary, or domestic violence. Serrano’s close call for driving without a license would fall within the three regular misdemeanors category, and Domenic Powell with DreamActivist.org said it’s not too hard for teenagers to get more than one misdemeanor. “When it comes to misdemeanors, some of these are just youthful mistakes that everybody makes,” he said.
Additionally, any drug crime, even possession of a joint or drug paraphernalia, is an automatic disqualification. “The things they hate the most are falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen and drugs,” warned attorney Joseph Weiner with the Immigrant Rights Project at Public Counsel, a national pro bono law center based in Los Angeles. But kids will try drugs, he said, especially teenagers.
Weiner said another unanswered question is whether juvenile offenses will be counted. Under current law, juvenile records are sealed and require a court order to be opened. If that does happen, California’s Welfare and Institutions code says that juvenile convictions become civil convictions. But Weiner is concerned that these convictions may be used to disqualify someone under the vague principle of posing a threat to national security or public safety.
“I have cases right now where the kids have problems. One has convictions for robbery and burglary as a juvenile. He has since reformed; he’s a great kid now. Will he be disqualified? If he is that’s extremely unfair,” Weiner argued.
Too much information
Public Counsel is one of several civil rights law firms planning to run clinics to help people with their applications. But in other quarters officials are urging caution. Nancy Coolidge, a legislative and policy analyst for the University of California, said there’s some anxiety in the UC President’s Office about undocumented students revealing too much. “If there was a student who was already in line for deportation, this might make a lot of sense,” said Coolidge. But for other students, she warned that “coming forward and identifying yourself and telling where you are and what you’re doing really carries a different weight.”
Besides, said Coolidge, the California Dream Act offers a better deal for students who are concerned about paying for college, without risking deportation in the event that a new presidential administration doesn’t continue the program. When fully implemented, the two bills that make up the Dream Act will allow some undocumented students to apply for private scholarships distributed by UC and Cal State, and for state-funded aid, including Cal Grants.
That’s what Luis Serrano is waiting for. As much as he wants a work permit, he’d also like not to work when he gets to a four-year university, so he can focus on school. “My whole plan is to finish at Los Angeles Community College, and when I transfer out not work and get aid to finish as fast as I can,” said Serrano. “I want to take as many units as I can with that money.”