WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children can start applying Wednesday for a deportation reprieve under a new program established by the Obama administration.
Democrats in Congress tried and failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would grant legal residency and the chance to become a U.S. citizen to young illegal immigrants who have clean criminal records and completed some college or served in the military.
President Obama decided in June to take matters into his own hands, announcing a program that will allow that group of immigrants, known as DREAMers, to receive a two-year deferment of deportation proceedings. If approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, those DREAMers can also apply for a work permit and later reapply for another deportation deferment.
On Tuesday, Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency is ready to process the flood of applications, and reminded people that this will not give illegal immigrants full legal residency.
"USCIS has developed a rigorous review process for deferred action requests under guidelines issued by (Department of Homeland) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano," said USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. "Childhood arrivals who meet the guidelines and whose cases are deferred will now be able to live without fear of removal, and be able to more fully contribute their talents to our great nation."
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the program opens the door for fraud and unleashes a torrent of unemployed workers at a time when the country's 8.3% unemployment rate is already making life difficult for U.S. citizens and legal residents.
"President Obama and his administration routinely put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Smith said in a statement. "With this track record, it's looking more likely that even President Obama may lose his job in this economy when Americans go to the polls this November."
The Department of Homeland Security has not estimated how many people could participate in the new program. But the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that up to 1.7 million illegal immigrants could qualify.
The application fee will be $465, and Mayorkas said that should cover the costs of hiring additional staff to process all the applications. DHS officials said a small number of cases can have their fees waived in extreme cases.
Applicants must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15 (when the program was announced), entered the U.S. before reaching their 16th birthday, have clean criminal records and must have either graduated high school or be on that track.
While supporters have been relieved since Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the plan in June, they are now more concerned with illegal immigrants fearful of applying, or being taken advantage of by real or fake immigration attorneys.
Gerardo Salinas, 25, an illegal immigrant whose family brought him to Chicago from Mexico when he was 13, said he heard radio ads for lawyers offering assistance shortly after Napolitano's decision. He visited two attorneys, and they each said it would cost $1,700 for them to collect his paperwork and submit it to the federal government.
He refused to pay the fee. But Salinas, who went blind when he was 12, wants to be an immigration attorney and was stunned to see people taking advantage of this life-altering opportunity for young illegal immigrants.
"They're Latinos," he said of the attorneys. "They may not be undocumented, but they have relatives, friends who are or were undocumented. They should know how much we suffer to work, how much we suffer getting health care, with school. It's sad."
Similar reports have been pouring into the offices of civil rights groups and members of Congress for weeks. On Thursday, about a dozen congressmen came together to warn people who qualify for the deferment against attorneys, sometimes referred to as "notarios," seeking payment.
"Please don't be taken advantage of," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. "You don't need an attorney."
Jacqueline Esposito, of the New York Immigration Coalition, said many are fearful that the government will use the program to identify and capture relatives who are illegal immigrants. But Homeland Security officials said Friday that information in applications will be confidential and will not be used to round up other people.
"There's a lot of skepticism about DHS and this administration," Esposito said. "We are assuring them that they're not putting their families at risk if they apply."
The members of Congress also warned potential beneficiaries of the program that if they attempt to defraud the system, it will not only hurt themselves, but the entire movement to grant them full legal status.
"Tell the truth on the applications," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., one of the original sponsors of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal permanent residency to young illegal immigrants. "There is nothing that will hurt our long-term cause or your individual situation more than misrepresenting critical facts on that form. It will come back to haunt you in ways you can't anticipate."
Homeland Security officials emphasized that point on Friday when outlining the plan. While they will not use the application process to round up illegal immigrants, they will pull out applicants who lie on their applications, pose a threat to public safety or have a serious criminal record.
Widespread fraud in the deferred-action program could hurt Obama politically leading up to the November election, analysts said. Obama has already come under attack from Republicans who accuse him of bypassing Congress to create a "backdoor amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute said that, because of the politics involved, "it means this program is under a microscope and any evidence of fraud will undermine the program."
Chishti said undocumented immigrants may be tempted to provide fraudulent documents to meet the educational requirements for applying for deferred action, especially through unscrupulous businesses willing to sell education credentials.
Some undocumented immigrants may resort to fraudulent documents to meet the age requirements, said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization critical of the program.
The lack of an interview "seems to be an invitation to fraud" by making it easier for older illegal immigrants to try to pass themselves off as under 31 by submitting fraudulent documents, Camarota said.
Camarota said that USCIS already has trouble processing applications for immigration benefits and that the addition of thousands of requests for deferred action could make it harder for investigators to detect fraud.
Immigration lawyers, meanwhile, are telling undocumented immigrants that they should fill out the forms honestly and truthfully, said Elizabeth Chatham, a Phoenix immigration lawyer who is vice chair of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
She said some undocumented immigrants may be tempted to alter employment records to protect employers when trying to prove they have been in the U.S. for more than five years and were in the country when Obama announced the plan. Both are requirements.
Chatham, however, said that although some fraud may be inevitable, she does not believe it will be widespread.
By Alan Gomez