WASHINGTON – Immigration authorities are bracing for a deluge of applications starting today when more than 1.2 million young illegal immigrants who were brought to America as children can seek to legally stay and work in the country under President Barack Obama’s most ambitious immigration initiative.
Even before the first request is filed, critics and advocates alike are warning of potential budget shortfalls and a logjam of paperwork that could mar the program, delay processing and facilitate fraud.
Advocacy groups have planned public celebrations, legal aid seminars and other events in major cities to herald a plan that has sparked rejoicing and relief in immigrant communities, and anger among Republicans who view it as a White House ploy for Latino support in an election year and a backdoor amnesty that usurps congressional authority.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will review the applications, is expecting about 1.2 million applications on top of the 6 million applications it normally adjudicates for citizenship, residency and work visas every year, officials said. That’s up from 800,000 expected when Obama announced the plan in June.
Advocacy groups estimate that more than 1.7 million teens and young adults may be eligible, although it’s unknown how many will apply or how quickly. Those granted approval will be given a two-year deferral from deportation and legal authorization to work.
The program offers far fewer benefits than the sweeping DREAM Act, which failed to win approval in Congress in 2010. That legislation, which Obama supported, would have granted legal status to undocumented youths.
“Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship,” Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a conference call with reporters. He said each application “will be examined for potential fraud and reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”
Mayorkas said application forms would be posted at www.USCIS.gov/childhoodarrivals, and can be submitted starting today. He said each application would likely take several months to process, and its progress can be followed online.
The program was designed and rolled out in 60 days – breakneck speed for a federal agency.
“It is going to be a huge challenge,” said Doris Meissner, who was head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000. “The start-off will be very important. How it is handled and the time it takes to process them will set the tone.”
Obama administration officials say the program will aid law enforcement by allowing authorities to focus on deporting convicted criminals, instead of students and other non-criminals with strong family ties in the United States. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expelled nearly 400,000 people, a record tally. More than half had criminal records, or were repeat violators of immigration law.
Some activists worried that a future president could overturn Obama’s order authorizing the temporary reprieves, and that immigrants who come out of the shadows and turn over their paperwork to authorities have no guarantees that they will not be deported if their applications are rejected.
“The undocumented youth I’ve met are so excited about finally being able to be counted, there will be a push to apply on the first day,” said David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland. “But I think people should take a breath and make sure they do it right, not right now.”
Under the program, undocumented immigrants younger than 31 who came to the United States before the age of 16 are eligible if they are enrolled in school, graduated from high school or served in the U.S. armed forces, and have no criminal record, among other criteria.
Getting a work permit allows an immigrant to obtain a valid Social Security number, apply for a driver’s license, open a bank account and other important benefits.
When he unveiled the plan two months ago, Obama called it “a temporary stopgap measure” rather than a solution to the nation’s immigration morass. Since then, critics have focused on apparent shortcomings in the program, which is officially known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
No new workers have been hired to review the school records, sworn affidavits and other documentation each applicant is required to file. And no funds have been appropriated to pay added processing costs. Officials said the initial budget will be covered by the $465-per-application fee, and as more fees are collected, new staff will be hired.
Officials said application fees will be waived in extreme circumstances, such as children living in foster care or in acute poverty.
“There has been a tremendous response,” said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an advocacy organization in Seattle. The group has hired two extra attorneys to help handle a flood of requests for legal assistance.