By Alan Gomez
President Obama’s plan to protect nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation is already facing intense scrutiny, from Republicans threatening impeachment and lawsuits to immigration advocates eager to see the final details of the wide-ranging plan.
But the biggest test facing the president’s plan could be how the federal government handles the coming deluge of thick, complicated applications from immigrants, a process that is expected to start in the spring.
Undocumented immigrants will have to establish they’ve been in the country for at least five years and meet other requirements, a difficult task considering most have spent their lives in the U.S. trying to avoid detection or having their names appear on any official document. And they’ll be going through the process as many politicians will be fighting to stop it and warning those immigrants that the information they provide could eventually be used to deport them.
For now, many are using a 2012 program to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation as a gauge to see whether the government is ready.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, resulted in more than 700,000 applications, with more than 630,000 approved. Each application was judged by officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and many were upset over how the agency performed.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association complained that wait times for other services handled by USCIS — applications for green cards and visas, for example — went up while the agency shifted its focus to the young undocumented immigrants. And immigrants around the country remain frustrated that the four USCIS service centers handling the applications continue operating very differently from each other.
“Everyone’s case is adjudicated on a different time frame, one that was impossible to predict or understand,” said Betsy Plum, special projects director for the New York Immigration Coalition. “Some service centers understand the different proofs they needed to see and are really able to process the applications quickly. Some aren’t.”
However, others, like Kamal Essaheb, a policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said the government was quick to respond to problems that arose and felt the experience helped USCIS, and immigrants, work through the kinks.
“There’s always a case that makes you scratch your head,” said Essaheb, himself a DACA recipient. “But in the context of 700,000 applications, I’ve got to say they’ve done a good job.”
Officials at USCIS declined to comment on their preparations for the new plan.
The biggest change from DACA to the new program will be the populations that they serve.
DACA was targeted at undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Many had school records to prove they met the requirement that they had lived in the country for the five previous years. Those lacking such records had to get creative to establish they were in the country.
Applicants used Facebook updates that listed their location, receipts from stores and restaurants and even traffic tickets to prove their residence. Plum said in one case, she used a photo of someone in New York City with the World Trade Center towers still standing behind them.
“So there’s proof that they were in the U.S. before 2001,” she said. “They will swear up and down that they have nothing that could ever prove they were here. But you sit down, talk to them and sure enough, you find something.”
Such extreme measures will be even more important for the new group of immigrants now eligible for the deportation protections. Many of them never attended a U.S. school, never signed an apartment lease or utility bill, and worked under fake Social Security numbers or were paid in cash.
“This is a population that is, by definition, undocumented,” Essaheb said. “It’s going to be a little messier.”
Many groups and politicians are trying to avoid that mess by expanding on the assistance they provided for DACA applicants.
The day after Obama announced his plan, the Mexican Embassy was already blasting out information from its 50 U.S. consulates. Their officials fanned out around the country in 2012 to help Mexicans get the documentation they needed for DACA, even using “Mobile Consulates” to get passports and birth certificates to people living in rural communities.
“For us, it’s very clear that the Mexican community in the United States is more or less settled,” said Julian Escutia-Rodriguez, head of consular coordination and Hispanic affairs at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. “So our responsibility is that they succeed and that their rights are respected.”
Those efforts worked. Mexicans made up 65% of the 1.2 million people eligible for DACA, but represented 77% of those who applied, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Escutia-Rodgriguez said those numbers prompted the embassy to work with other governments to help them improve their numbers too.
U.S. politicians will also help coordinate assistance for those applying.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., helped organize large events in Chicago to help immigrants apply for DACA and is now helping to organize similar events around the country.
“Now that the president has acted, it is the responsibility of all of us who pushed for this to sign up as many people as possible,” he said.
Others are hesitant.
Several Republicans are warning immigrants that signing up for Obama’s program could expose them to a federal government that may later use the information to deport them.
When Congress last passed a bill to legalize 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986, the law required that applications were confidential and could not be used for deportation proceedings. White House officials are stressing that they will also protect that information, but a future administration could have other thoughts.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said his office will make that point clear whenever someone is applying. “We have the responsibility of full disclosure and transparency,” he said. “We’ll be helpful, but people have to understand that.”