Immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents will likely not face prosecution or other repercussions — and neither will their families — if they apply for a new federal program that allows them to avoid deportation, federal officials said Friday.
Under a policy shift announced in June, certain illegal immigrants beginning Aug. 15 can apply for what the government calls deferred action. It would release them from deportation proceedings and allow them to apply for work permits. The renewable status will lasts two years.
But officials also warned that applicants for deferred action who knowingly lie, attempt fraud or do not meet the criteria but apply anyway could be considered immigration-enforcement priorities and turned over to prosecutors for removal proceedings.
To apply for deferred action, immigrants must have been brought to the country before they were 16 and must be younger than 31 as of the June 15 announcement. They must have graduated or currently be enrolled in school. Applicants must have also lived in the country consistently since June 15, 2007 and may not have been convicted of a serious misdemeanor, three misdemeanors or a felony.
While reaction to the news within the immigrant community has been generally positive, others have been wary because of the Obama administration’s record number of deportations. Immigration attorneys have also urged their clients to move forward with caution until the program’s implementation yields results.
Officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees legal immigration, said a strong confidentiality agreement was essential to ensure that as many immigrants take advantage of the process as possible.
“The goal of this process is to identify this population that the secretary has determined just doesn’t make any sense to spend removal resources on,” said a senior administration official who spoke on background.
The official also issued a stern warning that if the agency deems that information should be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for prosecution, it will not hesitate.
If the applicant is deemed a threat to national security or has not been convicted of a serious crime but is identified as a threat nonetheless, authorities may also pass along the information to ICE. Decisions on when to share information will be made on a case-by-case basis, officials said.
Applicants must submit an application for consideration for deferred status and a separate form requesting work authorization, which will serve as a secure identification document, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said during a conference call Friday. The cost of the forms will be $465, and the money will be used to hire staff for the program. Fee waivers are not available, although exemptions may be made granted on a limited basis. Applicants should expect to wait months before learning a decision on their applications, officials said. Application status can be tracked through an online system the USCIS will unveil this month. Some lawmakers and the Immigration Policy Center estimate that between 800,000 and 1.4 million people could benefit from the policy.
The election-year decision to grant deferred action is the latest in a string of moves by the Obama administration that attempt to focus the government’s resources on removing criminal immigrants and others considered high risk.
The issue has become politically volatile, and several Republicans have called the program “backdoor amnesty.” Shortly after Friday’s announcement, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, accused the president of catering to illegal immigrants before unemployed Americans.
“On the same day the unemployment rate rose to 8.3%, the Obama administration announced a requirement for illegal immigrants to apply to be able to work in the U.S.,” Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “The Administration’s guidelines don’t just encourage illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. — they actually require them to apply to do so. This is a slap in the face to the 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans.”
Democrats have applauded the move as a compassionate step toward immigration reform and a reward for hundreds of thousands of immigrants — brought to the country illegally by their parents — who have stayed out of trouble and pursued education.