Hundreds of immigrant families lined up in the intermittent rain outside a school in Jackson Heights, Queens, on a recent Wednesday. They were there to learn about the Obama administration’s new program to defer deportation of and grant work permits to young, undocumented immigrants.
The information session, organized by Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group, coincided with the day the federal government began accepting applications for the program.
Make the Road has been overwhelmed by the demand for information and assistance regarding the initiative, known as deferred action. In addition to the information sessions, Make the Road's staff attorneys and several volunteer lawyers have been meeting individually with applicants to help them wade through the years' worth of complicated paperwork required to apply. The lawyers have also been alerting those interested to the program's costs and risks.
The advocacy group is getting some help from the state handling the crush. It hired one additional lawyer this week using a $150,000 grant from the New York State Assembly.
President Obama established the program in June, formalizing the government's discretion in prosecuting deportation cases. To qualify, a person must have arrived in the United States before age 16, have lived in the country for at least five years and be in school or have a high school degree. People over 30, as well as those with criminal records, are disqualified. The reprieve lasts two years and can be renewed. Because the program does not change existing law, but rather alters the way it is enforced, the deferrals can be lifted at any time.
Some 486 people signed in for the session in Jackson Heights. This was far more than the 200 that Make the Road expected, according to Natalia Aristizabal, a youth organizer for the group. That tally doesn’t count the family members who accompanied them or the dozens who remained outside. Similar scenes were reported in major metropolitan areas throughout the country.
David Victorio, 16, waited outside the school with his family. His parents brought him to the United States from Mexico City as an infant. He said the program will help him get a college degree and a job to contribute financially to his family.
“It's not, 'do I want to or not?'” Victorio said of getting a degree. “It's something I have to do.”
The group's Queens office was still buzzing the next week. Aristizabalsat in her office with a rotating cast of volunteers, supervising them as they typed up spreadsheets and answered calls. Three different phones rang constantly in the small room.
“The demand is so high and there are so few of us doing this kind of work,” Aristizabal said.
Yaritza Mendez, a volunteer who is an American citizen, worked on a laptop in Aristizabal's office.
“I'm helping people I know who do not have the opportunities that I have,” said Mendez, 19.
There are costs and risks associated with applying. Combined, deferral and work permit applications cost $465 per person. Submitting false documents or attempting to conceal a criminal record is likely to lead to deportation. Moreover, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services does not accept appeals, meaning applicants must get their paperwork right the first time.
Make the Road's attorneys help applicants navigate this process free of charge. They direct people towards documents, such as school and medical records, that prove a date of arrival and duration of residence in the United States. They translate foreign birth certificates into English, a requirement.
Nick Katz, the attorney hired with the state grant money, started work in late August, devoting himself exclusively to helping applicants. On a recent Thursday, he sat at a desk amongst the volunteers, still without a phone line or business cards.
“Volume right now is the biggest problem,” said Katz, 31, adding he was looking forward to the work. “It's a step in the right direction in a much larger fight.”