WASHINGTON – Up to 1.76 million illegal immigrants could be eligible for a two-year reprieve from deportation under an Obama administration program that begins accepting applications Wednesday.
Immigrants like Reyna Montoya.
Montoya was 13 when she moved to Arizona with her family to escape the escalating violence in her hometown of Tijuana, Mexico.
Her family had a good life in Mexico, where they were “economically stable,” she said. But they were concerned about their security as the drug cartels grew in power.
For nearly a decade, Montoya has lived in this country illegally in fear of deportation. She is 21 now, an Arizona State University graduate.
She is a perfect candidate for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative that begins this month.
Under the policy, individuals under 31 can apply for a two-year deferral of any deportation, if they can prove they came to the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for the past five years, have not been convicted of select crimes and are not a threat to national security.
Applicants must have a high school diploma or GED, be currently enrolled in school or have been honorably discharged from the military. The deferral, if granted, is renewable and applicants can also apply for work authorization.
The Migration Policy Institute originally estimated that 1.39 million individuals would be eligible for deferral. It upped the number to 1.76 million last week after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released new guidelines that said young people not currently in school could still qualify, if they enrolled in school before Wednesday.
At a discussion hosted by the institute earlier this week, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas called the policy an “unprecedented effort” to transform the immigration system. But he stressed that the program would not serve as a “pathway to permanent residence.”
That is exactly the criticism that has been leveled by Republicans, who have denounced the policy as a “blanket amnesty” program that bypassed congressional authority.
But Mayorkas said there will be nothing blanket about the application of the program.
“Remember that the decision about whether or not to defer action in response to a request is an individualized decision,” he said.
The administration has been relatively quiet releasing information since unveiling the program in June.
The program is funded through an application fee of $465, although exemptions will be made for minors, homeless youth and youth with chronic disabilities whose income is below 150 percent of the poverty level, among other exceptions.
Individuals who apply will be scheduled for a biometrics appointment and subject to background checks against several databases. They will be asked to provide financial, medical, school, military, employment and other records to prove that they have met the requirements.
There is no appeal of a deferral denial, Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas said there is still information and instructions to come.
“We anticipate providing additional guidance on this subject on Aug. 15,” he said.
He could not predict how long it might take to process an application, saying that will depend on the volume and pace of applications.
At a news conference last week, House Democrats urged young people to “be patient.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said there are “a lot of unscrupulous people out there ready to hurt you,” and urged individuals to be careful of fraud by lawyers charging exorbitant fees.
The Democrats called the policy a “beautiful idea” that gives young people the chance to “achieve the dream of citizenship.”
Montoya hopes to be one of those young people.
After attending Mesquite High School in Gilbert, she won a private scholarship to attend ASU, where she majored in political science and immigration and economic policy, and minored in dance. She hopes to one day attend law school.
But for now, Montoya is busy ensuring her documents are in order so she will be ready when the application for deferred action is available.
“My parents always told me, ‘You’re not a criminal … we’re trying to be good members of society,’” she said.
While she is excited about the prospect of a reprieve from deportation, Montoya doesn’t want people to become “complacent.” She still plans to advocate for large-scale immigration reform.
“This is a victory we should celebrate, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal,” she said.