The Homeland Security Department said Friday that illegal immigrants will have to pay $465 to apply for legal status in the U.S. under President Obama's administration Dream Act, with the fees going to make sure no taxpayer funds are used.
Illegal immigrants will be able to begin applying Aug. 15 under the program announced in June by President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, which will apply to illegal immigrants age 30 and under who were brought here before age 16.
In another key decision, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency will generally not use the information from the applications to try to deport illegal immigrants who don't qualify unless they lie on their application, have serious criminal records or are otherwise deemed threats to the country.
That move is likely to draw fire from critics who say the Obama administration is knowingly turning its back on illegal immigration, but an administration official, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be named, said they made that decision in order to try to convince illegal immigrants to come forward.
"Information contained in the request will not be used for immigration enforcement purposes," the official said.
Driving without a license would not rise to the level of a criminal offense where the information would be used, nor would having worked in the U.S. under a false identify. But gun offenses, sex offenses or drunken-driving convictions would rise to the level where the information would be shared with deportation authorities.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said the program will push illegal immigrants into the workforce, letting them legally compete with American workers at a time when the unemployment rate is still over 8 percent.
He also worried about the guidelines, which he said aren't strict enough to weed out bad applicants.
"The lack of specific standards for employees processing the applications is an open invitation to fraud," he said
Officials couldn't say how long processing would take since they don't know the volume of requests or how long background checks will take.
The official who briefed reporters said 1,200 illegal immigrants who were already pending in the deportation system have been granted deferred action.
The legal status — and a work permit — will last for two years at first, but can be renewed again, meaning those who qualify can remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation, and with the right to work.
The specific conditions are that an illegal immigrant: was under 31 years of age on June 15, when the president announced the policy; came to the U.S. before age 16, has been in the country continuously for five years; and has graduated high school, earned a GED or was honorably discharged from the military.
Convicted felons and those with multiple misdemeanors would not be eligible.
Those are generally the same requirements as the Dream Act — legislation that never passed Congress but that would have granted a full path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants. Mr. Obama's order does not confer those same citizenship rights.
Officials said in very rare cases illegal immigrants who are well below the federal poverty line can request an exemption from the $465 fee.
Cesar Vargas, a former law school student who would be eligible for the Dream Act, said the administration's move was welcome, but not enough.
"Of course, the administrative directive is just the first step and we will keep pressuring both Democrats and Republicans to ensure a modern immigration process is enacted next year," he said.
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