Bank documents, school records and gym membership bills. Even junk mail.
This is just some of the evidence that Connecticut immigration lawyers are using to help young clients prove they meet requirements for a new program that grants temporary visas which allow undocumented immigrant clients to stay in the country legally for two years and also to hold jobs.
The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and it was announced by President Barack Obama over the summer after it became evident that Congress would not approve the controversial DREAM Act. Unlike the DREAM Act, the Deferred Action initiative does not grant immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
Immigration lawyers throughout the state said they have been contacted by numerous potential clients who have asked for help applying for the new program. The documentation is needed to prove that applicants came to this country before they turned 16 years old and that they are not yet 31 years old.
As of Sept. 18, Connecticut Legal Services Inc. began offering its services for free to help low-income immigrants apply for the program. The legal aid agency got involved after it realized that some people were rushing to get their applications done before the election, but weren’t being as careful as they should be, said staff attorney Massiel Zucco.
“Not everything is straightforward… Not every case is a simple case,” Zucco said, adding: “There is a looming anxiety that the program might end” if Obama is not re-elected. Last week, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested that, if elected, he would honor any visas that had been obtained during the Obama administration, but his administration would not issue new ones. He also promised to implement full immigration reform before the two-year temporary visa period expired.
As of mid-September, Justin Conlon, a North Haven immigration lawyer, said he had helped at least 10 undocumented immigrations prepare applications. Among them were clients from Turkey and the Congo.
Conlon said he doesn’t think that clients necessarily need lawyers to fill out the forms. But they may need a lawyer to help make sure they have all the correct supporting documents, he said.
The attorney said that school records are among the most reliable ways for someone to prove they came to the country before turning 16. “School records are hard to fake,” he said. The same goes for bank records and family medical records that include children’s names, he said.
“I had some clients who [used] a gym membership bill,” Conlon said. “In theory, they can submit notarized statements from people who know them.”
The federal government gives applicants one shot at bolstering applications with missing information and documents. “They send you a note to respond and you have 30 days,” Conlon said. However, the federal government doesn’t allow immigrants to appeal the decision if an application is denied. “It’s a one-time shot,” Conlon said.
Although some critics have argued that the Deferred Action program rewards illegal behavior, and that the president should not have created it without the consent of Congress, Conlon believes the program is good for the country as well as for the immigrants.
Not only do applicants get two years of protection from deportation, they are also authorized to work. With their new, legal status, more immigrants will land legitimate jobs and pay income taxes, Conlon said. “Once they get paid over the books, the government gets their fair share of the money,” he said. Conlon added the government will also make out well on fees associated with filing the application, which comes to $465 per individual.
Conlon said the program has been helpful for clients who he previously could not help.
“I’ve definitely had children of clients who I have had to turn away who I can now do something for,” he said. “Basically, the government says as long as you stay out of trouble, you can work.”
Attorney James Welcome, who has offices in Waterbury, Danbury, and New Haven, said he has had a number of calls about the program. Most of them are, understandably, anxious. “There is no appeal,” he said, echoing Conlon’s concerns. “If you aren’t successful, there’s no avenue for appeal, which is harsh,” Welcome said. “Whether they consult with an attorney or not, there is a natural fear.”
Like other immigration lawyers interviewed, Welcome thinks the program will be good for the U.S. economy and for other people the immigrants encounter. “I couldn’t tell you how many people [who have been] taking cash under the table,” he said. “People who were driving without a license. People driving without insurance.”
Developing A Story
Danbury immigration lawyer, Cynthia Exner, who also has an office in Port Chester, N.Y., said that as of mid-September she had at least two dozen people come into her Danbury office to ask for help in applying for the program. She expects many more. “As long as we can develop a history, a story, that is good enough [documentation],” Exner said.
Though the program specifically excludes those with criminal records, some people who have come to Exner’s office have been charged with drunken driving. The attorney said that sometimes that hurdle can be overcome, depending on how the case was resolved. “If it was dismissed, we may be able to work around it,” Exner said.
Exner cautioned that there are limits to the visa program. Successful applicants still can’t travel outside the country, she said, but their new legal status means they will encounter fewer hassles traveling within the U.S.
She acknowledged the critics who claim that the immigrants, once legally authorized to work, will take away jobs from native-born Americans. Exner doesn’t see that as a big problem. “A lot of these people are doing the low-level jobs” that many U.S. citizens don’t want, she said.
Exner said the application forms are not complicated. But they are long, she said, and her staff has noticed typos and other problems on some of them, which could be problematic for someone whose first language is not English.
For example, one portion of the form asks immigrants to list all the places they had lived. Even Exner and her legal team initally had trouble figuring out exactly where to write in the addresses. “I think they had to draw this up pretty quickly,” Exner said.•