WASHINGTON – Young illegal immigrants are scrambling to get passports and other records in order as the Homeland Security Department starts accepting applications to allow them to avoid deportation and get work permits.
Homeland Security announced the details Tuesday of what documents illegal immigrants would need to prove that they are eligible for the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The announcement came a day before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was set to begin letting people apply for the program.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants potentially could benefit from the program, which President Barack Obama announced in June. The program is beginning just months before what promises to be a tight contest for the White House in which the Hispanic vote may play an important role.
Obama has come under fire from Hispanic voters and others who say he hasn't fulfilled a previous campaign promise to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. The policy change could stop deportations for more than 1 million young illegal immigrants who would have qualified for the failed DREAM Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which Obama has supported in the past.
Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of circumventing Congress with the new program in an effort to boost his political standing and of favoring illegal immigrants over unemployed U.S. citizens.
Some, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have called the policy backdoor amnesty and said they worry about fraud.
"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," Smith said Tuesday.
At the Honduran Consulate on Tuesday, a line of people wrapped around the building before it was open for business, and the office was crowded for much of the day.
Evelyn Medina, 23, got in line at about 6:30 a.m., and she wasn't alone. 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.
Medina, a Maryland college student studying social work, said she expected to be ready to apply Wednesday. If she is allowed to stay in the U.S. and work, she hopes eventually to earn a master's degree.
The administration plan is to stop deporting many illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living here at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They also cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
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.
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."
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.
Honduran Consulate officials said the number of people applying for passports has more than doubled in the past week, and almost all of them have said they were getting passports to apply to stay in the U.S.
Mayra Rivera, 47, brought her children, ages 18 and 20, to the consulate Tuesday from Philadelphia to help them apply for passports.
"They came here when they were children. So, for them, even though they are from Honduras ... this is their adoptive country and they love it a lot," Rivera said in Spanish. "For them to succeed ... is like winning the Lotto."
Rivera, who came to the U.S. seven years ago from Puerto Cortes, Honduras, is not eligible for the program. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had said DHS does not intend to use the program to target parents for deportation.
Advocacy groups across the country are planning events starting this week to help immigrants fill out their applications and get all their paperwork in order.
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.
DHS officials have said repeatedly 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.
The document, obtained by The Associated Press, estimated that the program could cost between $467.7 million and $585.4 million. The department anticipated collecting about $484.2 million in fees.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap