By Amy Isackson
Starting Wednesday, an estimated 1.2 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children will be able to apply to live and work in the U.S. legally for at least the next two years. Up to 440,000 young people who live in California could benefit under this historic program that President Obama announced two months ago.
A young man--who asked to be identified by the name "Ish"--hopped off the trolley near his apartment in downtown San Diego. He was coming home from a day at work. Ish isn’t his real name, but that’s what he’d like us to call him because he's concerned about his undocumented status.
"It took me about two hours to get home," he said.
His trip would take about 15 minutes by car. But, Ish can’t get a driver's license because he doesn’t have the proper papers. He got his bachelor’s degree in political science from San Diego State University. He wanted to go to graduate school but couldn’t, because it required legal status. Instead, he works illegally managing a construction company. But, he said he hopes this all will change soon.
"And everything will be good and it’s gonna be great," Ish said.
Ish plans to apply for the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. It’s the largest immigration relief since President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to about three million people in 1986. DACA will allow people who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were under the age of 16, to avoid being deported for at least the next two years, with the possibility of an extension. There’s a laundry list of stipulations including that people are under age 31, are in high school or graduated and have a clean criminal record.
On the walk back to his apartment, Ish blended in with the downtown San Diego crowd. He explained that his mom fled an abusive marriage in Mexico and crossed the border with him and his brothers when he was four.
"When she came over here, she could have applied for a program for battered woman, where they would have allowed her to have citizenship, but she didn’t know. And then by the time she did, too much time had passed, so," Ish said.
Ish said what his mom did know was to save every scrap of paper related to her son. He unlocked his apartment door. It was an immaculate, modern two bedroom.
"That’s my room right there. And that’s my roommate’s room," he said.
He went to his closet, pulled down a box and started going through its contents. There was everything from his childhood vaccination records, to his college diploma, to his good citizenship award from the fifth grade.
"Man, that is really ironic," Ish laughed.
Putting the lid back on the box, Ish said he thinks he has everything. In fact, he does. Federal authorities recently announced which documents they'll accept.
Nevertheless, while Ish seems well poised to take advantage of DACA, federal authorities and immigration rights activists around the state fear that unscrupulous immigration attorneys and "notarios," or consultants, could take advantage of applicants.
"The amount of money that folks think they will make off of these young people is staggering," said Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director of Alliance San Diego, a member of an immigrants rights consortium. It has held town hall meetings and recently launched a web site to warn of fraud.
"Attorneys and notarios charging exorbitant prices for an application that the government itself is deeming a low effort application. And the kinds of prices that we’re seeing are equivalent to full court cases," she said. Like up to $4,000 to help people fill out the application. The actual cost to file it with the government is $465. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman in San Diego said her agency is already investigating a handful of alleged swindlers.
Meanwhile, many undocumented immigrants are concerned their DACA applications will be used to deport them. Authorities promise they won’t, unless an applicant has a serious criminal history or lies on the application.
Federal authorities expect a deluge of applications.
Doris Meissner is with the Migration Policy Institute. She’s spent a lot of time analyzing problems with how the government handled Reagan’s massive amnesty in 1986. She says new technology should make the job a lot easier this time around.
“Automated background checks, the ability to take fingerprints electronically, the sophistication of the service centers. I think that the platform is solid and sound and it can be done,” Meissner said.
For his part, Ish plans to sprint to his lawyer’s office to fill out the application.
To learn more about the program, visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.