Families prepare for Obama immigration plan

By Edward Sifuentes 06:00a.m. Dec 7, 2014, updated 03:41p.m. Dec 6, 2014

SAN DIEGO — As thousands of undocumented immigrant parents begin preparations to apply for the president’s new immigration plan, local families say they’re enthusiastic about the prospects of coming out of the shadows and also worried about the barriers they may face.

Under the program announced last month by President Barack Obama, undocumented immigrants who have U.S.-born or legal permanent resident children can apply for protection from deportation. They can also get a work permit and a Social Security number.

First they will have to prove that they have lived here at least five years, pass a criminal-background check and pay a $465 application fee each.

Republican lawmakers say the president overstepped his authority in launching the plan and that they’re committed to stopping it.

Immigration advocates and attorneys have already begun holding workshops to help families take advantage of the program, officially known as Deferred Action for Parental Accountability. It’s modeled after the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects young people brought into the country illegally by their parents.

The programs don’t provide immigrants legal status or guarantee a path to citizenship, but they provide an opportunity for families to stay together temporarily while Congress works out a more permanent solution, the president said.

People who qualify will not be deported for three years. They will have to reapply after the three-year period ends.

Up to 3.7 million could qualify for protection under the program, but far fewer are expected to apply.

According to a report released in August by the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration research organization, slightly less than 700,000 people — out of an estimated 2.1 million who were eligible — have applied for the children’s program since it began two years ago.

Immigrant rights advocates say participation could be hampered by several factors, including fear that the government may use the information to deport people, as well as the cost of applying, and any difficulty in gathering needed documents.

Vista resident Angelica Salazar, who has two U.S.-born children and two Mexican-born children, said last week she and her husband will apply for the new program and are confident they qualify.

But she has another fear: That the program may not be implemented at all.

Republicans in Congress are already trying to block the president’s plan and Texas Gov.-elect Greg Abbott on Wednesday filed a lawsuit the federal government over the program.

“I’m worried that it’s not going to happen,” Salazar said. “There are a lot of people who disagree with it.”

The U.S. House passed a bill on Thursday declaring the president’s executive action on immigration “null and void.” The measure was seen as largely symbolic because it’s not likely to pass the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Alpine, said through a spokesman that Congress needs to do more to stop the program. But that’s not likely to happen until next year, when Republicans take control of the Senate after gaining a majority in the Nov. 4 elections.

“There is strong consensus that the president overstepped (his authority) and there’s no clear precedent for his actions,” Hunter’s spokesman Joe Kasper said.

Immigrant rights groups started a campaign last week to educate potential applicants about the plan and to provide assistance.

“There is a lot hesitation by the community so far. Many are interested obviously but most are apprehensive to jump the gun,” said Anna Hysell, an Escondido immigration attorney. “I think the media has done a lot to scare people. … (saying) it might be repealed by Congress, it’s a trap that can lead to deportation or if there is a new president you can end up deported.”

On Friday, Alliance San Diego and the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium held workshops attended by hundreds of people in San Diego, Chula Vista, Spring Valley, Oceanside, Vista and Fallbrook. Another event was held Saturday at Cal State San Marcos and more will follow next year, organizers said.

Daniel Alfaro, with Alliance San Diego, said the groups want to make sure people know who is eligible for the program, what they can do to prepare and where they can get qualified, experienced legal assistance.

At a workshop Friday at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, 37-year-old Jose Nuñez said he’s worried about what might happen after President Obama leaves office — specifically, that the federal government may use the information he provides to deport him.

Immigrant rights advocates say that isn’t likely to happen, and Nuñez said he will submit his paperwork when the application process opens and hope for the best.

“I’m going to take it because it will benefit my family,” he said. “I’m going to do it and trust that everything will be alright. We have to trust in this country because, thanks to it, we have work.”

Pedro Rios, San Diego director of the American Friends Service Committee, said fear that the government will use the information provided by immigrants to deport them is one of the reasons why many people don’t apply.

“It is a fear,” he said. “But I have not heard of an instance where that has happened.”

Matt Holt, San Diego chairman of American Immigration Lawyers Association, said people should consult with a qualified attorney to assess their situation and decide whether they should apply. Applying with a criminal history could result in denial or deportation, he said.

His office held two free information sessions last week attended by more than 20 people each. Holt said that interest will increase once the applications start being accepted in May.

“People are hesitant right now but they’ll be exited when they start to see their friends getting work permits,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles for applicants might be gathering documents to prove they’ve been here at least five years. Holt said it’s difficult but not impossible because most people have bank accounts, bill payments, children’s school records and tax filings.

People who are thinking about applying should begin gathering documents that prove they’ve been in the country since Jan. 1, 2010. Ideally, they should have one document per month, or at minimum one document every three months, Holt said.

Salazar said she plans to apply no matter how difficult it may be to raise the money or gather the necessary paperwork.

“I see it as a favor (the government is granting),” she said. “When you try to do everything right, it shouldn’t be a problem. I pay my taxes. I’ve always paid taxes … and even though I’m a baby sitter and my husband is a painter and I have a lot of expenses, we have to look for a way to put together the money.”