To say it's been a busy year for nonprofit legal providers is a gross understatement. Those who provide free and low-cost services to immigrants are already stretched thin after months of assisting Central American child migrants and their families, continuing to help young applicants applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and answering questions from immigrants applying for California driver’s licenses. Up next, executive action.
The first crop of immigrants who could benefit from President Obama's immigration order announced in November, are people who arrived in the U.S. as minors. They’re expected to start an application process in February.
By May, a much larger group is expected: The parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, who have lived at least five years in the country, who will also be seeking seek temporary relief from deportation.
With an estimated one million immigrants without legal status in Los Angeles County, local legal nonprofits are bracing themselves.
“It is really testing the limits of our capacity,” said Daniel Sharp, legal director of the Central American Resource Center, near downtown Los Angeles. “There is no question that the demands of the past year, between the unaccompanied minors crisis and everything else, have already pushed us to the limit. And this on top of it, is the kind of increasing demand for legal services that happens really once in a generation.”
Sharp estimates that in the greater Los Angeles area, between 300,000 and 400,000 people could qualify for relief under the executive order on immigration. There will be at least another 200,000 immigrants who don’t qualify, but who will seek information about it anyway.
All of these people “are going to be looking for information and are going to be hard-pressed to find it, because the capacity in Southern California just isn’t there relative to the size of the immigration population here,” Sharp said.
The last time he checked, Sharp said, the ratio of possible eligible applicants in the L.A area to accredited pro bono legal providers was about 4,000 to one.
Organizations like CARECEN and others are hoping to bring on staff with their limited resources, and looking into grant funding and other options.
So far, there has been no mention of federal funding to aid nonprofits providing help to applicants, as there has been in other situations, like the child migrant crisis. Both federal and California state funding has been earmarked for minors’ legal representation, but not for these new executive action applicants.
Many of these immigrants won't necessarily need attorneys to help them. But they will need knowledgeable assistance filling out forms, navigating the application process and steering clear of scams. In some more complicated cases, a legal professional will be needed.
“We have to keep in mind that every case is unique and individual,” said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services. “Probably in some cases, the intervention of an attorney will be required to litigate these cases before immigration authorities.”
Cases like these could include those of immigrants with minor criminal offenses that lie in a gray area, or any number of other complications, Sanabria said. His organization is also hoping to boost staff, he said.
One key factor that could help providers - getting people to do their own prep work before they come in for assistance.
Since 2012, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles has assisted roughly 3,000 applicants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. The program grants temporary legal status to young immigrants under 30 who arrived before age 16. It is being expanded to a larger group of people who arrived as minors, regardless of their age now.
CHIRLA’s legal director Luis Perez said he and his colleagues learned important lessons from DACA that could help this time around.
“One of the main things we learned from DACA is, especially with the older DACA-eligible applicants, that the evidence component of the application is perhaps the most time-consuming part of it,” Perez said.
He’s referring to the evidence that applicants need to present, chiefly to prove their length of stay in the United States.
“Now we know there has to be a lot more community education,” Perez said. “The more education there is, the more prepared folks are… the better prepared they are when they come to legal services, and that allows us to do their application quicker.”
He said the group is planning “preparedness clinics” for interested applicants, so that people can get ready ahead of time and save time for themselves and those assisting them.
That said, Perez’s organization is also looking into grant funding to help mitigate the expected demand for assistance.
Details on the executive action rollout remain scarce; but Perez estimates from the White House's November announcement that applications will be available shortly after mid-February for the DACA expansion. He expects they’ll be available shortly after mid-May for what's referred to as DAPA, for "Deferred Action for Parental Accountability,” which will bring in the bulk of applicants for relief.
Altogether, an estimated one million unauthorized immigrants in Los Angeles County could meet the meet the eligibility criteria, according to the Pew Research Center. And the demand has been evident from the get-go, said CARECEN’s Sharp.
“We expected it would be big, and it has been,” he said. “We had our first forum two days after the President’s announcement, and we had close to 300 people – and we did little in the way of outreach.”
Meanwhile, a battle is raging in Congress as House Republican leaders try to find ways to block funding for implementation of the program. President Obama has indicated he'll veto any legislation that attempts to do so, if it makes it as far as his desk.
The executive order on immigration that President Obama signed in November touches on almost every aspect of the immigration system. What does that mean for Southern California — and you? We have some answers.
What changes for Southern California?
Lots, potentially. It’s estimated that about 83 percent of California’s unauthorized immigrant population has been here five years or more. Not all of these people would qualify. But the Pew Research Center estimates that throughout California, there are close to one million immigrants who could qualify for temporary relief from deportation.
Who is included?
The plan would allow immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to apply for three years’ worth of temporary relief — and work permits — if they have been in the U.S. for at least five years. It also expands what is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, regardless of how old they are now. That program has until now been limited to people 30 and younger.
There will be other groups of immigrants affected: High-skilled workers on H-1B visas will find it easier to move or change jobs, for example, and some dependent spouses of high-skilled work visa holders will be able to obtain work permits.
But immigrants without legal status will be the bulk of those affected. The two categories of relief for them are being referred to as “Expanded DACA” and DAPA, for “Deferred Action for Parental Accountability.”
How do I know if it affects me?
If you are the parent of U.S. citizen or legal resident children and you’ve lived in the United States for more than five years, the executive order affects you. If you arrived in the United States as a minor before Jan. 1, 2010, it also affects you.
The executive order might also affect you if you have or are married to someone with a high-skilled worker visa, or you employ people with that type of visa.
It could affect you if you are the son or daughter of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, and you are trying to legally adjust your immigration status. The executive order now allows these sons and daughters to obtain a provisional waiver of unlawful status, which helps those trying to legalize by traditional means.
When does this go into effect?
Only basic details have been released by the federal government, and applications aren’t yet available. But it’s expected that the first wave of applicants for relief can begin applying in February of 2015, approximately 90 days from the President’s Nov. 20, 2014 announcement. These would be people applying for extended DACA - immigrants who arrived prior to age 16.
Applications for the second, larger wave of immigrants – parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents – are expected to be available approximately 180 days after the President’s announcement, in May.
How do I know if I qualify for extended DACA or DAPA?
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has published a short list of requirements for each. According to the agency website, those eligible for the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals must:
- Have entered the United States before the age of 16
- Have lived in the United States continuously since at least January 1, 2010 (the previous cutoff was June 15, 2007)
- Be of any age (previously, DACA applicants must have been born before June 15, 1981)
- Meet all of the other DACA guidelines (this includes a record free of felonies or “significant” misdemeanors, such as a domestic violence, drug or firearms offense, or three or more misdemeanors)
Those eligible for DAPA, which applies to parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents, must:
- Have lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 2010
- Have had on November 20, 2014, a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident
- Not be an enforcement priority for removal from the United States, under the November 20, 2014 Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants Memorandum, which describes criminal offenses that make individuals a priority for deportation
What do I need to do?
Nonprofit organizations, churches, consulates, and other organizations that work with immigrants have been doing outreach and conducting information workshops. Some recommendations:
- Get informed – and be patient.
- Be wary of any notarios or unofficial legal advisors and others who promise the impossible.
- Check with official sources and know the date when applications become available. If anyone tells you otherwise, you could become the victim of a scam.
- If you seek legal advice in advance, make sure your legal provider is qualified. The federal Board of Immigration Appeals maintains a list of free legal service providers that is available online.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has published information on how to avoid scams in multiple languages.
Could the information I provide to the government get me deported?
According to USCIS, information provided by applicants is not to be disclosed to other immigration agencies for enforcement purposes, with the exception of certain cases. This includes cases in which an individual meets the criteria for a “Notice to Appear” before immigration authorities, and cases in which the individual has been found to engage in misrepresentation or fraud.
The agency does make it clear that individuals found to knowingly misrepresent their case or not disclose facts “will not receive favorable consideration,” and that they could be referred to ICE and asked to appear before an immigration judge.
There have been legislative and legal challenges to the President's executive order. The House of Representatives has approved Republican-backed legislation that would roll back the order, and also do away with the existing deferred action program. In addition, several states have joined a lawsuit in protest. President Obama has indicated he will veto any legislative attempt to do away with the immigration order if one reaches his desk. But he has warned that permanent immigration reform must be enacted by Congress. The new plan provides only temporary relief, without a long-term path to citizenship. And a successor to President Obama could eliminate it.
Do you have other questions? Let us know in the comments and we'll try to get you answers.
This story has been updated.