By Jamey Dunn
A new policy from President Barack Obama’s administration opens the door for thousand of undocumented young residents of the state to temporarily avoid the fear of deportation.
Since August 16, undocumented youths can apply for a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offers two-year renewable reprieves from deportation. To qualify, applicants must be able to prove that they are 30 or younger, that they came to the country before they turned 16 and that they are students, graduates or have served in the military. Those applying must have must have clean criminal records.
Applicants may also be eligible for work permits.
Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), said an August 16 Chicago event to assist potential applicants, which the group helped organize, had an estimated attendance of 13,000 people. He said that the crowd was so big that organizers had to turn some people away. Tsao said that about 7,500 people received advice, and 1,500 received assistance with processing their applications.
Less than a week after the policy went into effect, Tsao says “The response has been powerful.”
ICIRR estimates that about 75,000 people in the state may be eligible for a deferment. “They may also be granted a work permit,” he said. “If you are granted a work permit, you can get a social security number, which means, of course, you can work legally.” In Illinois, it also means you can get a driver's license.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that up to 1.7 million of the approximately 4.4 million undocumented immigrants in the country who are 30 or younger could potentially qualify for the program.
The application charge for the program is $465, which is the cost to apply for a work permit. Tsao cautions that, while many who receive the deferment may get a work permit, some will not. “It’s not automatic.” Work permits will be temporary and renewable.
Obama put the policy in place through his executive powers after years of fruitless efforts at passing the DREAM Act, which would have offered many young immigrants a path to citizenship.
“Now, let's be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the right thing to do,” Obama said when he announced the program.
“The initiative is an opening for undocumented immigrants to — on a trial basis — be here, study and work all under lawful auspices. It is an opportunity, as well, to challenge the perception of undocumented [immigrants] particularly of undocumented youth, who in nearly all cases are people who are eager to be Americans, in fact as well as in spirit,” Tsao said.
Critics call the policy a cynical attempt at pandering from a president in a close re-election race. “Congress has never said the president has he power to do what he’s doing, but states are apparently expected to cough up billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to provide one benefit after another to a group of people that are here illegally,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer have announced that residents receiving deferrals in their states would not be eligible for any state benefits, such as driver's licenses.
Stein called the program “unconstitutional” and a “gross abuse” of the president’s power. “The big problem with this status is that it appears to be dependent on the president getting re-elected,” he said.
“It is a definite concern that the policy may change as a result of the election,” said Tsao. But he said that the program is a result of the grassroots advocacy lead by young people, who have been holding demonstrations, lobbying their elected officials and taking the risk of “coming out” as undocumented. “This intuitive was won largely as a result of young people coming forward, putting themselves at risk. ...It’s going to take just as much courage to keep this initiative won, regardless of who is president.”
Tsao recommends that those considering applying for the program seek out an immigration lawyer or advocacy group. “We are recommending that these young people consult with attorneys or authorized not-for-profit organizations that practice immigration law, if only because some of them may actually qualify for more permanent benefits. They may just not realize it,” he said.
For more information on the program, see the ICIRR’s dedicated website, DreamRelief.org and the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center’s website, dreamerjustice.org.