U.S.
6:23 pm
Wed August 15, 2012

For Undocumented Youth, New Policy Carries Risks

Originally published on Wed August 15, 2012 6:56 pm

The U.S. government began accepting applications for "deferred action for childhood arrivals" Wednesday — a program designed to allow qualified young people to study and work in the U.S. openly.

On New York's Lower East Side, a line stretched around the block. Hundreds of potential applicants had shown up for free legal advice. Inside the church basement, dozens waited for help filling out their paperwork.

Millions Expected To Apply

"Half of me is saying, 'OK, it's real,' " says Mubashar Ahmed, a college student studying chemical engineering. "The other one's asking, 'Is it real?' Now seeing it is actually believing it. Like, looking at all these people signed up to do it, I'm like, OK, this works."

Ahmed, 26, hopes deferred action will give him a chance at continuing his studies in the U.S., and at ultimately getting a job in his field.

"For the first time, I know that I can do this over here, without having to give up on everything that I've worked on and all the people that supported me."

Ahmed is one of an estimated 110,000 potential deferred action applicants in New York state alone. Nationwide, more than 1.7 million people could sign up for deferred action.

What they're applying for is not permanent legal status — something advocates of the DREAM Act, which failed in Congress earlier this year, had been pushing for. Instead, applicants will essentially receive a promise from the federal government that they won't be deported for the next two years.

During that time, they can study and work legally.

At a press conference Wednesday, local lawmakers, including New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, urged Congress and the president to do more.

"This is a great day," Quinn said. "It's a great step forward. But it is not enough. We want to make the DREAM Act no longer the DREAM Act — that it is the law."

In the meantime, Quinn urged New Yorkers who are eligible to sign up for deferred action. Still, despite the lines in the Lower East Side today, not everyone is rushing to apply.

Not Without Risk

"There's obviously huge fear," says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Chishti says many potential applicants are worried about coming out of the shadows — because anyone who applies for deferred action but gets rejected will have told the government a great deal about themselves.

"So it's a big risk," Chishti says. "And since there's no guarantee in this program that just because you apply that you will get the benefit, it's a cost-benefit analysis, which every individual will have to frankly make themselves."

Those risks may be most serious for people who've had a brush with the law. The Obama administration was careful to limit the deferred action program to those with no felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. But that has not been enough to placate the administration's critics.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that advocates for lower immigration levels, says the program puts Americans at a disadvantage.

"Unemployed Americans are now going to have about maybe 1.8 million more people added into the legal workforce, to compete with them for a limited number of jobs," Beck says. "So there's a cost to this. And the cost is to the most vulnerable young Americans."

A Program With An Uncertain Future

Critics also accuse the Obama administration of circumventing the will of Congress to change the country's immigration policy — and pandering to Latino voters in an election year.

It's not clear what would happen to the deferred action program if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected in the fall. That worries many potential applicants, including Nathalia Narciso of New York. Even so, she's planning to sign up for deferred action.

"When people ask me about this, I always let them know, 'Just remember that they could take this away at any moment,' " Narciso says. "I'm worried, but at the same time, it's a risk that we've got to take. And I'm willing to take it."

Judging by the lines for legal help at St. Mary's Church, a lot of potential applicants may come to the same conclusion.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today could be a big day in the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The government began accepting applications for what it calls "deferred action for childhood arrivals." Those whose applications are approved, will get immunity from deportation for two years. This is specifically aimed at allowing qualified young people to study and work in the U.S. legally.

CORNISH: Applicants have to be under the age of 31, and they must have come to the United States before they turned 16. For tens of thousands of undocumented high school students, it could remove some obstacles to going to college. We'll explore that in a few minutes. But applying for deferred action also carries some risks, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: On the first day to sign up for deferred action, hundreds of potential applicants showed up for free legal advice, at a church on New York's Lower East Side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I knew they'd understand the Spanish interpreters - for screenings.

ROSE: The line stretched around the block. Inside the church basement, dozens of applicants waited for help filling out their paperwork. Mubashar Ahmed(ph) was one of them.

MUBASHAR AHMED: Half of me is saying, OK, it's real. The other one is asking, is it real? So now seeing it is actually believing it, you know? Like looking at all these people signed up to do it, I'm like, OK, OK. This works.

ROSE: Ahmed is 26 years old. He's in college, studying chemical engineering. He hopes deferred action will give him a chance at continuing those studies in the U.S., and at ultimately getting a job in his field.

AHMED: For the first time, I know that I can do this over here without having to give up on everything that I've worked on, you know, and all the people that have supported me.

ROSE: Ahmed is one of an estimated 110,000 potential applicants in New York state alone. Nationwide, more than 1.7 million people could sign up for deferred action. What they're applying for is not permanent legal status, something advocates of the so-called DREAM Act had been pushing for. What applicants would get instead is, essentially, a promise from the federal government that they won't be deported for the next two years, during which time they can study and work legally.

At a press conference today, local lawmakers including New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, urged Congress - and the president - to do more.

CHRISTINE QUINN: This is a great day. It's a great step forward. But it is not enough. We want to make sure the DREAM Act is no longer the dream act, that it is the law.

ROSE: In the meantime, Quinn urged New Yorkers who can, to sign up for deferred action. Still, not everyone is rushing to do that.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: There's, obviously, huge fear.

ROSE: Muzaffar Chishti directs the New York office of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. He says many potential applicants are worried about coming out of the shadows because anyone who applies for a deferred action, but gets rejected, will have told the government quite a lot about themselves.

CHISHTI: So it's a big risk. And since there's no guarantee in this program that just because you apply, that you will get the benefit, it's a cost-benefit analysis - which every individual will have to, frankly, make themselves.

ROSE: Those risks may be most serious for people who've had a brush with the law. The Obama administration was careful to limit the deferred action program to those with no felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. But that has not been enough to placate the administration's critics. Roy Beck is the president of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that advocates for lower immigration.

ROY BECK: Unemployed Americans are now going to have about maybe 1.8 million more people added into the legal workforce, to compete with them for this limited number of jobs. So there's a cost to this; and the cost is to the most vulnerable, young Americans.

ROSE: Critics also accuse the Obama administration of circumventing the will of Congress to change the country's immigration policy, and pandering to Latino voters in an election year. It's not clear what would happen to the deferred action program if Republican Mitt Romney is elected in the fall. And that worries potential applicants like Nathalia Narciso(ph) of New York. Still, she's planning to apply for the program.

NATHALIA NARCISO: When people ask me about this, I always let them know. I'm like, you know, just remember that they could take this away at any moment. I'm worried but at the same time, I - you know, it's a risk that we've got to take. And I'm willing to take it.

ROSE: Judging by the lines for legal help at St. Mary's Church, a lot of potential applicants may have come to the same conclusion.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.