Activists Rush to Help People Qualify for Obama Immigration Plan

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US President Barack Obama speaks at Rhode Island College October 31, 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Immigrant rights groups across the U.S., cheering President Barack Obama’s move to halt deportations, are already busy advising undocumented people how to take advantage of the changes.

Gathering documents such as birth certificates and rent receipts to prove eligibility is a necessary first step, according to Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, California. The nonprofit organization is also warning that scam artists may try to profit from excitement before the application system is up and running, which could take months.

Another group called Michigan United plans informational sessions for immigrants in Detroit next month. And in Texas, a new hotline from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services will soon provide as much as 45 minutes of guidance on how to navigate the process without an attorney.

Obama’s executive order, the biggest reprieve for undocumented immigrants in a generation, has people who have lived clandestinely for years weighing whether to apply for protection from deportation that may not much outlast the president’s time in office. The program’s impact hinges on people like Carolina Rivera, who moved to Chicago from Mexico 22 years ago and has worked illegally ever since.

‘Take Advantage’

“I’m going to take advantage of this new plan, although I know that we can’t be sure about what is going to happen five years down the road,” said Rivera, a 40-year-old mother of three U.S.-born children whose husband was deported a decade ago. “It’s not the solution that we are looking for, but now we have time to keep fighting for something more.”

Obama circumvented a deadlocked Congress to give temporary visas to undocumented immigrants whose children are citizens or legal permanent residents and to expand eligibility for those who arrived as children, known as “Dreamers.” The plan also boosts a work-permit program for certain foreign graduates of U.S. universities to fill high-tech jobs.

Republicans are outraged and vow to challenge the president’s use of executive authority. There’s no guarantee how long it would continue after Obama leaves office, particularly if Republicans capture the White House in 2016.

While the unknown expiration date may dissuade some immigrants from applying, Gregory Schell, managing attorney at Florida Legal Services in Lake Worth, said he is advising his farmworker clients to come forward. Even the most strident opponents wouldn’t buck historical precedence and reverse an administrative decision like this, he said.

‘Funny Word’

“‘Temporary’ is a funny word in the immigration field: As long as you keep your nose clean, you tend to keep that status,” he said. “The fact that I could be deported at some point in the distant future or I could be deported tomorrow if I have a broken tail light on my car doesn’t seem like a difficult decision.”

The estimated 5 million people Obama’s plan protects from deportation exceeds the almost 2.7 million given permanent legal status by the 1986 immigration law signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan. Participants must prove they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and pass a background check, and won’t receive health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid or food stamps.

More than half of the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. aren’t eligible. That’s tempered the enthusiasm of advocates like Fernando Garcia, executive director at the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights.

‘Short-Term’

“This is not the immigration reform that we’ve been fighting for,” he said. “This is a temporary, short-term remedy.”

The president’s plan is modeled after one he announced in 2012, called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and referred to as DACA. That program has shielded 600,000 child immigrants from deportation and provided access to Social Security numbers and two-year work permits. Proponents, such as the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress, praise it for having enabled participants to open bank accounts, obtain drivers licenses and earn higher wages.

DACA also gave rise to predatory practices by people who claimed to be attorneys, charged fees and then failed to deliver, said Mariam Kelly, immigration staff attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.

‘Unscrupulous Practices’

“Whenever any new kind of program is announced I worry about two things: I worry about people not understanding it and making it out to be more than what it actually is, and I worry about people who fall victim to unscrupulous practices by people who are looking to take advantage of immigrants,” she said. “I just want to make sure people are aware and they protect themselves and they know their rights.”

Information sessions led by Michigan United, a coalition of churches, labor and community organizations, will instruct would-be applicants that the decision to apply is theirs alone, said Diego Bonesatti, director of legal services. Still, he said the goal is for as many as possible to register.

“If more people come forward now, it forces the issue, it puts pressure on politicians on both sides of the aisle to say, ‘Whatever we think of the president’s action, these people are doing the right thing,’” he said. “I think there is a certain strength and safety in numbers.”

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