Valley experts urge caution over immigration deferrals
Immigration attorneys and advocates cautioned undocumented youth on Wednesday to be careful and seek legal help when applying for the new federal program that will grant a temporary work permit to qualifying illegal immigrants.
Fresno immigration experts say some of the application requirements for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are unclear, and they worry that rejected applicants will have no recourse to appeal the decision — or worse, they and their families could be subject to deportation.
These concerns and other lingering uncertainties about the bold new immigration initiative that President Barack Obama unveiled two months ago prompted Fresno State to join forces with immigrant youth advocates, attorneys and community organizations to open a help center this week. The center, staffed by 80 volunteers, will help undocumented youths and their families navigate the application process at no cost.
The new coalition — Deferred Action Dreamers Coalition — launched the help center Wednesday, the first day Homeland Security officials began accepting applications. By 7:30 a.m., a long line had already formed outside the center, which opened at 9 a.m. Elsewhere in Fresno on Wednesday, groups of youth advocates were prepping for educational workshops, and the Mexican Consulate spent the day assisting large crowds of Mexican nationals applying for deferred status and cautioning immigrants to avoid scam artists.
The warnings didn’t appear to dampen the enthusiasm of young DREAMers — the name given to undocumented students advocating for federal passage of the DREAM Act — who say the deferment program is a landmark victory in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
“We are one step closer to obtaining the dream,” said Oday Guerrero of the Central Valley Dream Team, which advocates for equal access to education for undocumented youth. “But this is not the end. This is not a path to citizenship. We still have a long way to go.”
Fresno State senior Yadira Arreguin came to California illegally from Mexico in 1999, when she was 9. She has been struggling to buy books and pay tuition with a meager salary working the fields or waiting tables — the only jobs she could get without legal identification.
Arreguin, a child development major, said she hopes to get a job working with at-risk children and gain some experience before applying to graduate school.
“I have the opportunity to work in something that I really want to do,” she said. “So I’m going for it.”
Arreguin, 22, plans to apply for deferred status this week.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals relaxes immigration rules for those who meet a list of criteria — immigrants must be younger than 31 as of June 15; have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday; have continuously lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; be in school, have graduated or have a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran; and not be convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or three or more other misdemeanors. If approved, they qualify in California for a work permit that allows them to get a Social Security number and a drivers license — and live in the U.S. without fear of deportation for at least two years.
But just how easy it will be to get that permit and how long it may take remain to be seen. Applications must be mailed to one of four processing centers in the U.S. — there is no option to submit online. The $465 fee covers the work permit and fingerprinting. Immigration authorities do not offer an estimated processing time, but some attorneys say applications will take about three to six months. There is no deadline to apply.
Immigration advocates recommend that applications be reviewed by an attorney or experts, and that applicants visit the Fresno State help center or attend one of the many workshops that will be held in the Valley over the next few months. If applicants don’t get it right the first time, they likely won’t have another chance to apply. Camille Cook, a Fresno immigration attorney, said applicants likely won’t be able to appeal a rejection because the program is an executive order — not a law passed by Congress. Any decision by an immigration official will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has said he opposes the executive order. It’s not clear what would happen to the program if he is elected president in November.
Local attorneys say they’re concerned that traffic tickets or citations for driving without a license — a common violation among illegal immigrants — will bar many from qualifying for a permit. Federal officials have said they won’t target applicants and their families for deportation, but there’s no guarantee the information won’t be shared with immigration enforcement agents, said Jessica Smith Bobadilla, an immigration attorney and professor at San Joaquin College of Law.
“Anyone who they deem is not eligible for this deferred action would then be eligible to appear before immigration court,” Smith Bobadilla said. “It’s very unclear and scary for folks who don’t have a clear-cut case.”
As many as 1.76 million unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the country as children could be eligible for deferred status, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. There are an estimated 460,000 eligible immigrants in California, and Fresno immigration experts expect 10,000 to 20,000 from the San Joaquin Valley will apply.
California’s undocumented students attend universities and community colleges under Assembly Bill 540, which lets students who have attended high school in California pay in-state tuition — no matter their immigration status. The California State University system has an estimated 3,600 students on its 23 campuses enrolled through AB 540 — although this figure includes others who fit the criteria, such as military veterans. Fresno State has about 260 such students.
Guerrero said that, until now, AB 540 students had few opportunities after graduation. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology but has been doing volunteer work since her graduation from University of California at Irvine. She hopes the temporary work permit will let her use her degree to get a job in her field — and begin paying down her student loans.
Students aren’t the only group jumping at the opportunity for temporary legal status. The Mexican Consulate of Fresno has been swamped with requests — about 50% more than average — since Obama announced the program in mid-June. Consul Reyna Torres said the northwest Fresno consulate and the Hanford mobile office had a total of 500 appointments Wednesday — about 200 more than the daily average for August. She is asking for assistance from Mexico to deal with the large volume.
Torres said the consulate is helping Mexican immigrants get some of the documents they need to apply, holding as many as four informational sessions a day and warning people about immigration scams that have popped up.
The Valley is a hotbed of immigration-service frauds, Torres said. Many Latin American immigrants are lured by “notarios” — a word that means “attorney” to many native Spanish speakers, but generally these people have no legal expertise. Some opportunists advertised their services days after Obama announced the program, although the application wasn’t yet available. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris issued a warning Wednesday about potential scams targeting young immigrants.
“We have interviewed people who have gone to notaries charging $1,000,” Torres said. “We don’t want this to be another opportunity for these criminals to charge a ridiculous amount of money.”
Free legal help is available to those interested in applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Resources include:
Deferred Action Help Center
Walk-ins, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Twice-daily workshops at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., starting Monday
1551 E. Shaw Ave., Suite 107, Fresno
Consulate of Mexico
7435 N. Ingram Ave., Fresno
(877) 639 4835
New American Legal Clinic
locations at the Consulate of Mexico and the San Joaquin College of Law
901 Fifth St., Clovis
National Pursuit of DREAMs
First workshop is today at 6:30 p.m.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
10355 Hanford Armona Road, Hanford
By Heather Somerville