Am I eligible? With Immigration Policy Change Imminent What You Need to Know About Deferred Action

Photo: anksampedro/Flickr

On August 15th, young undocumented immigrants can apply to stay in the US legally under the deferred action plan announced in June by President Obama. Feet in 2 Worlds asked immigration attorneys “what do people need to know before applying?”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has been designed to allow people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to get temporary protection against deportation.

According to this report from the Immigration Policy Center the program “offers a two-year, renewable reprieve from deportation to unauthorized immigrants who are under the age of 31; entered the United States before age 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony, a “significant” misdemeanor, or three other misdemeanors; and are currently in school, graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military.”

The Immigration Policy Center ranks New York fourth after California, Texas and Florida as having the largest population of potential beneficiaries with 70,170 people who either qualify or will qualify once they turn fifteen.

Andrea Panjawani, lead attorney for the African Services Committee in Harlem plans to hold clinics starting in September to screen people who may be eligible for the program. The organization works primarily with French-speaking West Africans from countries such as Gambia, Guinea and Senegal.

Using trained volunteers, often law students, the screenings will determine first if a person is eligible for some other form of permanent relief.  If so, they will help with that other option first.

If they determine that Deferred Action is the right program, they will open a file, create a document checklist and work with applicants to complete the necessary forms. “This doesn’t lead to green card status,” says Panjawani, “but it’s a good step.”

If you’ve read the guidelines on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site, the amount of verification they are looking for can seem daunting, especially for young people.  “We will give you ideas on how to get the right documents” says Panjawani, including drafting cover letters applicants can use to approach doctor’s offices and schools where they were enrolled.

Valerie May and Mark Harley run May Law Group, a private immigration firm with offices in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, representing many clients planning to apply right away on August 15th. Like Panjawani, they will walk their clients through the process after a thorough screening, including a criminal record check in every state in which a client has lived.

They do this, says May, to make sure that if you are turned down because of past convictions, you do not increase your risk of being deported. For this reason, Harley and May warn against filing the application on your own or with an organization that doesn’t have a background in immigration law.

“There are big risks,” says Harley, especially when using an unlicensed notario, usually a person who speaks an immigrant’s native language and acts as an attorney without having the necessary training. “With us,” says Harley “everything we do, our accreditation is on the line.” He says an unlicensed notario might file an application without doing a thorough screening, putting applicants at risk.

Like many people across the country, May and Harley are now waiting for the government to release the final list of required documents. Originally scheduled for August 1st, May and Harley say the final list has been pushed back until at least the 15th, making it difficult to prepare ahead of time.

Panjawani is less worried about the process going wrong. “For people without a serious criminal background,” she says, “even if they are not accepted, there have been government assurances that they are not a priority (for deportation).”

She says there are plenty of organizations planning clinics and workshops on the process including training sessions for public school guidance counselors who will need to advise students on the new policy.

If you are in New York City, the New York Immigration Coalition is hosting an Orientation on Deferred Action for Dreamers on Wednesday, August 15 between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Church 440 Grand Street (between Pitt St and Attorney St) – Manhattan.

Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund. 

AboutAaron Leaf
Aaron Leaf is a writer, editor, and digital producer based in New York with a special interest in African politics, immigrant diasporas, and the future of cities. Raised in Canada, he has lived on four continents and has written for a wide variety of publications. Recent bylines include Al Jazeera America, The Nation, The Globe and Mail and The Guardian.