How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Deferred action: What happens next?

Student activists stage a sit- in at President Obama's Culver City, Calif. campaign office, June 15, 2012
Student activists stage a sit- in at President Obama's Culver City, Calif. campaign office, June 15, 2012 Photo by Roberto (Bear) Guerra for KPCC

After a landmark announcement Friday by the Obama administration that it would not pursue deportation for some young undocumented immigrants, federal officials are now gearing up for quite a bit of work. And that's before applications for relief start pouring in.

Friday's news involved the granting of deferred action, a temporary deferment of removal, to young people who arrived in the United States before age 16 if they meet certain criteria, among them a clean record and five continuous years in the country.

It's a temporary fix, as President Obama stated, with no path to citizenship or even permanent legal status. But those who qualify will be eligible for work permits, a major boon to young people who have been raised and educated in the U.S., but have been unable to pursue many work opportunities because they can't adjust their immigration status.

Now the logistical fun begins. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been given 60 days to formulate a process by which to accept applications, and it's going to be a challenge, to say the least. The plan could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, if not more, who will need to file required documents and obtain background checks.

In a conference call Monday with immigrant advocates and other stakeholders, top Homeland Security officials went over the process and several questions, some of which there still aren't answers for. As might be expected, there are concerns about fraud and scams taking advantage of the desperate. Most importantly, though: Don't apply for deferred action just yet.

"The period has not yet opened," warned Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS. "We will not accept requests now. They will be rejected."

But there is now a USCIS hotline, (800) 375-5283, in English and Spanish with deferred action details. Mayorkas reiterated the criteria for applicants, which is posted online. The basics:

Applicants must have come to the U.S. before age of 16; have continuously resided in the U.S. for at least five years prior to June 15, 2012 (the date of Friday's memo) and have been present in the country on that date; must currently be in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or been honorably discharged from the Armed Forces or the Coast Guard; and have not been convicted of a felony, a "significant misdemeanor" or multiple misdemeanors. Lastly, they must be between the ages of 15 and 30.

Some of the pertinent question that came up in the conversation today:

  • Do people have to be in removal proceedings to qualify? No, nor should they think they have to initiate them in order to be eligible, Mayorkas said. People who are not in deportation proceedings will be eligible for deferred action they meet the criteria, as will those already in proceedings.

  • Will those who qualify for deferred action be able to cover dependents? Also no. Deferred action will be granted on an individual case-by-case basis, meaning everyone must qualify on their own. Plus, since there is no legal resident status, beneficiaries can't sponsor relatives.

  • Are commonplace misdemeanors like driving under the influence considered "serious?" Yes.  A conviction for driving under the influence, or for drug possession, is enough to render one ineligible. A squeaky clean record is best.

  • What is the cutoff date for having entered the United States, June 15 or June 16 of 2007? That one was still up in the air. "We will get resolution of that," Mayorkas said.

  • Can those who obtain deferred action travel outside the U.S.? Possibly. Legal residents and visa holders are able to travel outside the country, but there's still no clear answer on what travel rules will apply to those who obtain deferred action.

Meanwhile, other DHS agencies are taking part in the process also; for example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will "take steps to identify those who qualify" among those in deportation proceedings and refer them to USCIS, ICE director John Morton said.

As USCIS gets its systems in place, those hoping to apply might as well begin compiling paperwork, because they'll need it. Among the acceptable documents they'll be able to present in order to prove their date of arrival and length of stay in the U.S. will be financial, school, medical and employment records, according to the agency.

Much of what was covered in the stakeholder talk is online in a long list of FAQs with answers, along with hotline numbers for USCIS and ICE.

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