Although opponents are still fighting President Obama’s immigration executive order, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCI) will begin accepting applications for his more lenient version of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) on February 18.
The original DACA plan, which has enrolled more than a half-million young people since it went into effect in June 2013, provided a two-year work permit and two years of relief from deportation.
To qualify, applicants had to have arrived in the U.S. by July 15, 2007; been 15 or younger at the time of arrival; been under age of 31 on June 15, 2012; have no serious crimes on their record; and have enrolled in or completed high school or a G.E.D. program or been honorably discharged from the armed forces.
Under expanded DACA, there is no age cap; the arrival date is up to January 1, 2010; and the protection lasts for three years instead of two. An estimated 330,000 more people will be eligible for deportation relief under expanded DACA.
The Department of Homeland Security indicated that it would take 90 days for DACA to begin taking applications, some thought it would take much longer. That’s why a USCIS flyer that began floating around the Internet in late January caught many by (pleasant) surprise.
"I thought I was going to have to wait until May," says Lupe González, a 35-year-old living in Queens, New York, who couldn’t apply for the old DACA program because she was over 31. "Now that it’s in February, it’s just a rush to get the money and papers together."
González, who works as a nanny in Brooklyn, she says she’s currently enrolled in a G.E.D. program because, by poking around online, she figured out that simply signing up for one would fulfill DACA’s education requirement. She says that the processing fee may be her biggest obstacle. "I’m about halfway there but will figure it out," says González, who hopes to apply next week.
Expanded DACA still has some of the old program’s more onerous provisions such as the $465 processing fee. (Processing includes background checks and biometrics.)
There’s also the burden to prove one’s presence in the country before the age of 16–which is sometimes a challenge for immigrants who didn’t attend school right away and therefore lack school records, which is a common form of proving one was in the country as a minor.
To navigate the sometimes-confusing application process, some community organizations are holding workshops for undocumented people and giving them hands-on, in-person help.
Take Make the Road New York, a grassroots group that organizes and advocates for working-class youth, immigrants and LGBTQ people. At 3 p.m., on a cold New York City weekday this month, a handful of people are already gathered at Make the Road’s office for a 4 o’clock workshop that is free and in Spanish. The early birds say they’re there an hour ahead of time because they think the meeting will get packed. They’re right.
By 4:15, all 20 chairs are taken and stragglers are standing. The participants are Latino with varying fluency in Spanish and they appear to be in their 30s and 40s.
Make the Road’s DACA advocate, Yenny Quispe, begins the workshop by asking people what they know about expanded DACA. Participants know some of the basics–that it removesthe age cap and changes the date of entry. Then she builds on the group’s existing knowledge, explaining the other changes in deportation relief and challenging myths and uncertainties people have about who may be eligible for it. Quispe also helps settle participants’ concerns about the four- to six-month wait they will likely have before they hear if they’ve been approved.
At 4:45, participants receive a pile of paperwork that includes authorization and privacy statements–and a crucial questionnaire that will help Make the Road’s lawyers determine if an applicant is eligible for expanded DACA. They also assess whether undocumented people are eligible for forms of relief that can create a path to permanent residency and citizenship such as U-Visas and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ).
"Workshops like the ones Make the Road does are incredibly important," says the group’s staff attorney Nick Katz. "Combating unscrupulous attorneys and getting folks into reliable organizations helps make folks aware that there are other forms of immigration relief that they may be eligible for."
Later this week, nearly 3,000 miles away in Santa Clarita, Calif., 35-year-old homemaker Erica Álvarez will attend a free workshop offered by the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Álvarez’s mother is a longtime member of the group; she decided to join, along with her husband, soon after Obama announced his executive action.
Since Álvarez graduated high school in Santa Clarita, Calif., she’s eligible for expanded DACA. Because both of her children were born in California, Álvarez can also apply for a new program created by Obama’s executive order–Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA for short.
To qualify for DAPA, applicants must be the parent of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident child who was born by November 20, 2014–the day Obama announced his executive action. They must also show that they’ve continuously resided in the U.S. since at least January 1, 1990, and they can’t have a deportable crime on their record. USCIS will begin accepting applications in May.
"I haven’t figured out which one to apply for," says Álvarez. "That’s why I’m going to the CHIRLA workshop that I was invited to."
Although undocumented people and their advocates are excited about the opportunities Obama’s executive action provides, it still leaves people out.
Eduardo Samaniego, a Massachusetts college student, is one who will be left behind. The 22-year-old left Mexico for Georgia when he was 16. He learned English quickly, maintained a 3.8 grade point average while taking advanced-placement classes and he even became class president. Samaniego was recruited by one of Georgia’s top colleges, the University of Georgia, but was ineligible to apply because of the state’s ban on undocumented students.
Samaniego decided to attend Freedom University, an Atlanta-based program that offers Georgia students like him free education, help with college applications and scholarships, and movement skill-building. Last year, Hampshire College offered Samaniego a $240,000 scholarship and he’s now a freshman majoring in political science.
But because he came to the U.S. when he was 16, Samaniego still doesn’t qualify for expanded DACA. He says he feels incredibly lucky to be able to attend Hampshire, but that Obama’s announcement was a letdown for him. "This means I still can’t get a driver’s license or get a job," explains Samaniego. "Every time I travel from Georgia to Massachusetts, I have to go through the Department of Homeland Security–the same [agency] that deports people."
Nevertheless, Samaniego seems more concerned for the estimated seven million undocumented immigrants who are also ineligible for any kind of relief under Obama’s executive action. During our two hours of conversation he kept coming back to people who don’t have the educational advantages he does. "There’s a fear and it’s not going away for these seven million people who don’t qualify," says Samaniego. "And [that fear] is not going away for the 4 million who can apply [for relief] under the executive action because this is just a Band-Aid that can get taken away at any time."
As Samaniego points out, Obama’s deportation relief programs can get caught up in lawsuits or be completely dismantled by a new administration as early at 2017. But if and until that happens, deferred action applications will be rolling in.