More than 1.7 million illegal immigrants could become eligible for tentative legal status Wednesday when President Obama’s non-deportation policy goes into effect, and after initial fears that the program would backfire, immigrant advocates are urging young immigrants to sign up.
Activists say the policy is the biggest change on immigration in decades, and it has roiled the political landscape, solidifying Mr. Obama’s support among Hispanics and leaving presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggling to say what he would do.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration laid out final details, including relaxed education standards that set a low bar.
Under the rules, illegal immigrants in job training or who have enrolled in a GED course are eligible — a lesser requirement than obtaining a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.
The government begins taking applications Wednesday, and immigrant rights groups and members of Congress from both parties have scheduled legal clinics across the country to help determine whether immigrants qualify and to aid them in filling out the forms.
“Our job is to make sure that everyone who’s eligible for this program knows about it and applies for it if they feel comfortable after weighing the risks and benefits,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “So far, the benefits have kind of outweighed the risks, based on the hundreds and thousands of people coming forward.”
The policy halts deportations for illegal immigrants not above the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, who don’t have a major criminal record, and who can show they have been in the country studying or in job training.
Those eligible for the policy are known as Dreamers, after the Dream Act — legislation that failed to pass Congress but would have granted them a path to citizenship.
The Obama policy does not offer a path to citizenship but rather “deferred action,” a halt to potential deportations. Those who qualify also can obtain a permit to work in the U.S.
In certain states, that could be good enough to obtain a driver’s license or in-state tuition at state schools, advocates said.
Republicans said it will push hundreds of thousands of new legal workers into an already tough job market, where they will compete with Americans.
They also said the administration is not requiring in-person interviews for applicants and is accepting affidavits for some requirements, which they said is an invitation to fraud.
“While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano.
The Homeland Security Department, which will process the applications, wouldn’t guess how many applications it will receive.
But the latest estimate from the Migration Policy Institute says that as many as 1.76 million illegal immigrants could be eligible. Homeland Security estimates about 11 million illegal immigrants reside in the U.S.