Lake County DREAMers just beginning to file for deferred status
Thousands in line at Navy Pier as Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, take part in a DREAM Relief Day, assisting undocumented students apply for deferred action to stay and study in the United States legally, Wednesday, August 13, 2012 .
Updated: September 7, 2012 8:52AM
The list of caveats is long, the forms are complicated and the application is pricey.
But thousands of undocumented young adults in the United States eager to ease their legal status are applying for deferred action status under the Obama Administration’s discretionary enforcement policy. It carries both reward and risk, advocates for immigration reform acknowledge, and they recommend seeking legal advice before applying.
“Deferred action is a temporary reprieve from deportation,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, legal director of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.
“This is not a legal status change, but will allow those previously undocumented the opportunity to apply for employment authorization and in Illinois to apply for a driver’s license and Social Security number,” Ruiz-Velasco said.
The program is targeted to help students, those with a high school diploma or equivalent, or honorable military discharge. Applicants must have arrived in the U.S. before age 16, lived here for five years, are 30 or younger, and be without a felony conviction and most misdemeanors.
Three forms are required with a $465 application fee and a list of documents to prove residency during the past five years, including school records, medical receipts, financial records or church documents. If approved, a two-year deferred status is granted, and reapplication must be made, if the program continues.
Due to the uncertainties, immigrant rights activists from across Lake County are stressing those interested in applying educate themselves about the process.
New Americans Democracy Project Fellow Tatiana Alonso has been educating about the process in many Lake County communities. An Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights program, NADP provides communities with useful resources like lists of low-cost, trustworthy local lawyers; deferred action workshops; and a tight-knit support system.
Alonso said the most important piece of advice she could give to those planning to apply for a deferred action status would be to get fingerprinted beforehand.
“It’s really important that people get a full screening before applying because they might not realize that the little things on their record they’ve forgotten about can affect them and get them denied,” Alonso said, adding that getting fingerprinted was the best way to get that information.
In Illinois, between 75,000 and 100,000 may be eligible for the program, which nationwide could benefit up to 2 million undocumented youth, Ruiz-Velasco said. An estimated 15,000 undocumented young adults lined up Aug. 15 at Navy Pier for help with forms on the first day to file, according to the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago.
But locally, officials are reporting that since the act is designed for undocumented youth, there is little knowledge about who or how many people in Lake County are seeking the status.
The Northern Illinois Immigration Alliance, which serves people throughout Lake, northwest Cook and Kane counties, took about 100 people to Navy Pier last month. The group has hosted one local workshop and plans to host more seminars in coming months to educate area residents on Dream Act requirements.
“We show them how to fill out the application,” said Graciela Contreras, the alliance’s executive director.
Then, Contreras said, an alliance lawyer verifies the application, makes sure the documents are in order and mails it out.
Lake Bluff-based Bennu Legal Services, which specializes in immigration issues, offers consultations that can last more than an hour with each person.
“I really caution people to go slowly,” said Andrew Sagartz, executive director for Bennu Legal Services, noting that there is no specific deadline.
“We just want people to go in with eyes wide open.”
At OMNI Youth Services, a Buffalo Grove-based public service agency that works with teens around Lake County in a variety of capacities, associate director Jason Wynkoop said the organization wasn’t directly involved. OMNI, however, is a member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which he said is active with the Dream Act legislation.
Wynkoop said that children of illegal immigrants often do not realize the potential that still awaits them.
“Many of them are believing that high school is the farthest they can go, because of their status or their family’s economic situation,” he said.
Fred Tsao, director with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said many young people have been waiting for years and worked hard to get to the point where deferred status is offered.
“Everyone understands the work is not done and this is a stop-gap; what’s really needed is federal legislation like the DREAM Act,” he said.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act introduced but not approved in 2010 proposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents.
Though the deferred status policy offers the hope of temporary benefits, it also poses risks.
“It is not a law or even an executive order. There is a risk coming forward and applying, because a policy and a government can change,” Ruiz-Velasco said. “We would hope the government would never take the position to put all of the hundreds of thousands of people who apply into deportation proceedings.”
Applicants who are rejected also risk deportation, so it’s essential to secure good legal advice, experts warn.
“We want to make sure people don’t become victims of fraud by going to unauthorized practitioners,” Ruiz-Velasco said.
Workshops and free legal resources are listed on the justice center’s website at www.immigrantjustice.org. An online self-assessment to check qualifications for deferred status is at www.dreamerjustice.org.
Mundelein High School assistant principal James Ongtengco is enthusiastic about the potential the executive order for deferred action carries for students.
“We want to make sure that this beautiful population feels accepted and wanted because this is their school too, and we want to be able to provide them with services,” Ongtengco said.
Ongtengco has worked with his school’s Hispanic Outreach program to secure speakers for a Universidad de Padres workshop. The workshop will be held in the high school’s cafeteria at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, and will explain to the parents and students in Spanish what the law means and how to proceed with the process and paperwork.
Ruiz-Velasco added that the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago is seeking additional attorneys and other volunteers to guide applicants, and training will be provided. The center also will hold workshops at a second office in Gurnee and intends to partner with community groups throughout the suburbs to meet the demand for help.
“Those who camped out at Navy Pier really demonstrated how hungry these young people are to pursue their educations and work,” Tsao said. “These are young people who have so much to contribute to this country if given the full opportunity to do so.”
Bridget O’Shea, Ronnie Wachter and Laura Pavin contributed to this report.