TOPICS > Politics

Young Undocumented Immigrants Line Up for Waivers to Avoid Deportation

August 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A policy change by the Obama administration opened the doors for certain young, undocumented immigrants to come forward in order to avoid or defer deportation, and thousands of people have flocked in response. WTTW's Paris Shutz reports from Chicago, and Judy Woodruff talks to Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the story of young undocumented immigrants anxious to stay in the United States.

Yesterday was the first day they could apply for deportation waivers under changes announced by President Obama earlier this summer. Under the new program, young illegals will not be deported if they were brought to the United States before age 16 and have remained for at least five years without leaving, if they are under the age of 30 with no criminal history. And they must have a U.S. high school diploma or its equivalent or have served in the U.S. military.

Thousands of immigrants flooded their local offices yesterday.

Paris Schutz of WTTW Chicago reports on the scene there.

PARIS SCHUTZ, WTTW reporter: They were lined up in and around Navy Pier, some camping out in the wee hours of the morning.

How long have you been at Navy Pier?

YUSEF SALAZAR, undocumented immigrant: Seven hours already, seven hours, since 4:00 in the morning.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Yusef Salazar says today is like a coming out of the shadows for he and other undocumenteds, whose future now looks a little brighter.

YUSEF SALAZAR: We have all been waiting for this, you know? I mean, it’s not the DREAM Act, but it’s something. The main thing is school, go to college, be somebody, help my family, my parents mainly.

WOMAN: If you are not eligible for deferred action, your application will be denied.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Lawyers and immigrants rights activists were set up at stations, assisting undocumenteds with their paperwork.

WOMAN: You keep this. And then you will go to them on Monday, and then they will just check and make sure everything is OK.

PARIS SCHUTZ: If it checks out and they can prove they have finished high school and have a clean criminal record, they can stay here, get a driver’s license, seek further schooling, or go to work.

Because of the sheer number of people here today, some had to be turned away. In all, about 1,500 were able to complete their application and in about a month they will receive their new deferred status.

Xavier Manuel, who lives in Glendale Heights, was one of the unlucky ones who didn’t make it in.

XAVIER MANUEL, undocumented immigrant: They didn’t have enough applications done. But they had a lot of volunteers coming around giving them our email and stuff, where they were going to email us for the next workshop to be done. So we will just hope for the best and wait for that.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Today is especially bittersweet for Tereza Lee, born in Brazil and brought here by her parents at the age of 2. When she was 8, her parents revealed that she wasn’t legally a U.S. citizen.

TEREZA LEE, undocumented immigrant: My dad told us, keep it is secret. You can’t tell anyone outside of our family. Otherwise, our families will be separated.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Tereza, an accomplished pianist, was unable to accept invitations to attend prestigious colleges because of her immigration status. Her story inspired Sen. Durbin to author the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to permanent citizenship for certain undocumenteds.

It’s passed the House, but has yet to muster enough votes in the Senate. Republicans have called the president’s order a cynical election-year ploy to woo the Hispanic vote. Tereza Lee, now married and a legal U.S. citizen, sees it differently.

TEREZA LEE: This is a historic first step for the dreamers. This is just the first step. We really need to push for the DREAM Act. We need comprehensive immigration reform in the long run.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Once granted, the new status is good for two years, when undocumenteds can then reapply.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help give a sense of how yesterday’s events unfolded across the country, we turn to Brian Bennett. He covers homeland security for The Los Angeles Times.

And thank you for being with us.

BRIAN BENNETT, The Los Angeles Times: Happy to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So I read today that about 1.7 million young people were eligible, about 40 percent of those in that age group. How good a job did the government do of getting the word out about this?

BRIAN BENNETT: Well, the government announced it in June, but really it was a grassroots-level organization that put it out.

So you have people who are eligible for this program. A lot of them have been advocating for some sort of legislation for more than two years like the DREAM Act, for example, which would have created a path to citizenship for young people who came here in childhood.

They have a robust lobbying organization that they have activated over the last year, year-and-a-half.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these pro-immigrant organizations?

BRIAN BENNETT: That’s right. They are across the country in many major cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Brian, you talked to a number of young people yesterday both here in the Washington area and you were also on the phone to different parts of the country.

What were they saying to you about how it went for them and why they did this?

BRIAN BENNETT: There was a lot of excitement yesterday among this group of undocumented young people, people — I spoke with people in Ohio, for example.

And one young man had been waiting just to be able to apply for a job to work in a political office. He had wanted to work for his local state senator. And because he’s undocumented, he couldn’t do this.

He was excited to apply for this because he would be able to get a work permit and be able to fulfill his dream of working in politics, which he hadn’t been able to do until this moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the ability to get an education, just the fact they don’t have to worry about being deported for many of them makes a difference.

BRIAN BENNETT: And this is not going to give them any legal status. But it is going to give them — put their minds at ease that they won’t be deported for at least two years.

And I spoke with one young man who had wanted to be an electrician, but he didn’t — wasn’t able to get a job to afford to classes to become an electrician. He felt like if he applied for this and was given a work permit, that he could finally go to school and become an electrician.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you said you also talked to young people who expressed nervousness about this because of exposing other members of their family.

BRIAN BENNETT: That’s right.

There were a number of people who were uncertain about whether or not they wanted to apply. They were afraid that it might expose members of their family who are undocumented. DHS has promised that they would not go after…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s Homeland Security.

BRIAN BENNETT: The Department of Homeland Security has promised they would not go after family members of those who applied.

Also, there’s a concern that, if they get rejected, they may be deported. If someone has a criminal record, for example, and their application is rejected, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have said they could deport them.

And also there’s just the concern that they could apply and that another president would come into power who would reverse the program, and they’re afraid that they would have given this information to the government and they could be a target.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what is the sense that if — if President Obama is not reelected in November, if Mitt Romney were to become president, what is the sense of what would happen to this program?

BRIAN BENNETT: So, we don’t know what Mitt Romney would do. He’s been asked about this. He has said that he opposes the program, that he thinks it’s an end-run around Congress, that it shouldn’t have been done, but he has not said that he would roll back the program if he became president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, on — did you get a sense on balance that most of these young people felt that it was worth taking the risk, or what?

BRIAN BENNETT: The vast majority of the young people I spoke with were very excited to apply.

A lot of them, thousands of them showed up to get legal assistance yesterday in cities around the country. And the vast majority of them wanted to step forward, come out of the shadows and apply for this program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know that — we also know that some states — or, in fact, every state has the ability to implement this differently.

We know in the state of Arizona the governor, Jan Brewer, said she doesn’t want these young people to be eligible for driver’s licenses, for example.

BRIAN BENNETT: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is that going to affect what happens?

BRIAN BENNETT: So once a young person gets a work permit through this program, they will also get a Social Security card. And they could also apply for a state driver’s license.

And, of course, it depends on the laws of the state as to what kind of documentation is required. And I’m sure, like there in Arizona, some states are going to be looking at this program and deciding whether or not they want to allow people who participate in this program who got a work permit to be able to get a driver’s license as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the young people you talked to, all of them were able to get this permit — they were able to apply yesterday at least. What about those — we heard the young man in the video report there saying he wasn’t able to sign up right now, but there will be other workshops. Is that how it goes forward — going forward from here?

BRIAN BENNETT: So, what’s going to happen is yesterday was the first day that you could apply for this program. Anyone can apply. You can download the forms from the Homeland Security website, and mail them in.

And what organizations have done is, they have made lawyers available over the next several months to do a consultation with someone before they send their paperwork in to make sure that they have the right documentation and that they aren’t putting up red flags that might get them deported in the end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, so they can either download or they’re able to — as we heard again in that report, there are workshops that are being held where they will be able to apply as well.

BRIAN BENNETT: That’s exactly right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what do they have to look forward to? They wait for something to be sent to them in the mail and then…

BRIAN BENNETT: So, they will download the application online, fill it out, mail it in, and they will get a receipt that they had completed the application. They can follow the status of their application online.

They have to go in for an appointment to have their fingerprints taken. And they will receive a background check. Their fingerprints will be checked against law enforcement databases. And their documentation will be reviewed. And, eventually — it could be several months — they could receive their work permit and not be deported for about two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other thing we didn’t mention, Brian Bennett, and that is that, for these young people, they have to come up with some money to get this, what is it, $465? Is that a uniform amount they have to pay around the country? BRIAN BENNETT: It is.

It’s $465 to apply for the program. The program itself is going to be covered — implementing the program is going to be covered by those fees. So what that’s meant is that the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t hired any new people to process these applications until the fees start coming in.

So there’s a concern that there could be a backlog, because you have the same number of people at Homeland Security as you had the day before the program. You have potentially hundreds of thousands of applications coming in, and they won’t hire anyone until those fees start being collected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was going to be my last question. Is the government prepared to handle all this?

BRIAN BENNETT: The government says they are prepared to handle this.

The Department of Homeland Security is used to handling about six million visa applications and residency applications a year. This could add to that program almost two million pieces of paperwork. So that’s more than a 20 percent, 25 percent increase. And it’s unclear as to whether or not the government has the work force or the money to handle that kind of workload.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian Bennett with The Los Angeles Times, thanks very much.

BRIAN BENNETT: Happy to be here.