Hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants scrambled to get papers in order Wednesday as the U.S. started accepting applications to allow them to avoid deportation and get a work permit — but not a path to citizenship.
President Barack Obama announced the program in June after pressure from Hispanic voters and others who said he hasn’t fulfilled a campaign promise to overhaul tangled U.S. immigration laws.
Less than three months remain before what promises to be a tight election in which the growing Hispanic vote will play an important role. Some Republican lawmakers accuse Obama of boosting his political standing and of favoring illegal immigrants over unemployed U.S. citizens.
“While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said Tuesday.
The new plan is to stop deporting many illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could affect more than 1 million young illegal immigrants. But Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said being approved to avoid deportation “does not provide lawful status or a path to citizenship.”
To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living in the country at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
The Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center estimate that as many as 1.7 million people could be eligible to stay in the U.S. and legally work under the new policy.
Department of Homeland Security officials have said they don’t have an estimate of how many people may apply. In an internal document outlining the program’s implementation, officials estimated 1.04 million people would apply in the first year and about 890,000 would be eligible.
At the Honduran Consulate on Tuesday, a line of people wrapped around the building before it was open for business.
Evelyn Medina, 23, got in line at about 6:30 a.m. With her passport in hand, Medina was all smiles as she walked out of the building just before 2 p.m., saying, “Finally” as she clutched the document.
The college student said she expected to be ready to apply Wednesday. If she is allowed to stay in the U.S. and work, she hopes to earn a master’s degree.
Under guidelines that the administration announced Tuesday, proof of identity and eligibility could include a passport or birth certificate, school transcripts, medical and financial records and military service records. The DHS said that in some instances, multiple sworn affidavits, signed by a third party under penalty of perjury, also could be used. Anyone found to have committed fraud will be referred to federal immigration agents, the department said.
The paperwork for the program can be downloaded from the Immigration Services website. Applicants must pay a $465 fee and provide proof of identity and eligibility.
A decision on each application could take several months, and immigrants have been warned not to leave the country while their application is pending. If they are allowed to stay in the United States and want to travel internationally, they will need to apply for permission to come back into the country, a request that would cost $360 more.
Advocacy groups across the country are planning events starting this week to help immigrants fill out their applications.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.