Coming out of the shadows may not be as easy as U.S. President Barack Obama made it sound on TV Thursday night. For immigrants, getting protection from the government can be costly, difficult and scary -- and those factors could dissuade millions of eligible people from applying for Obama's new program.
His announcement offered deportation relief to 5 million immigrants, mostly parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The plan had similarities to Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, which gave benefits to people who immigrated to the U.S. as children. About 1.2 million people met the requirements, but only 55 percent of them actually applied, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Because the barriers haven't changed, experts expect a similar turnout this time around.
Money is the biggest issue for applicants, said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Applying to the 2012 program cost $465, and the new plan could be even pricier. "Almost by definition, the folks who are eligible for this have very little money because they have not been authorized to work in the U.S.," Williams told International Business Times. Work permits are available to undocumented immigrants under the new plan, along with driver's licenses in certain states.
About 43 percent of people who qualified for the 2012 program but didn't apply said they couldn't afford it, according to the Immigration Policy Center. The situation becomes a catch-22, said Luis Torres, director of policy for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "They almost have to break the law to work, so they're able to get right with the law," he said.
Even people who have the money might not have the documents required to prove their identity and residence. Applicants to the 2012 program had to show evidence like birth certificates, report cards, medical records, pay stubs and utility bills, according to form instructions. Torres said gathering these papers may be harder for middle-aged parents, especially if they've been in the U.S. for years. "It's a complicated process," he said.
Some people might just not want to bother going through it all, Texas immigration lawyer Richard Fischer said, especially because there's no guarantee how long the benefits will last. The next White House administration could reverse the plan when Obama's presidency ends in two years. Congress could overturn it even sooner. Potential applicants' mentality becomes, " 'I don't want to basically turn myself in to the government and take the chance that this policy will change,' " Fischer said.
People like Paul Quinonez, a 20-year-old from Mexico, felt the same way about the 2012 immigration policy. He said his mom was concerned about where his private data would end up if Obama lost re-election. "If the Republicans took over the White House, what would they do with my information?" Quinonez said.
That fear is another huge discouragement for potential applicants to the new plan. Almost 15 percent of people eligible for the 2012 program didn't apply out of fear of sending personal details to the government, according to the Immigration Policy Center. Exploitation of this information, however, isn't likely, Ohio immigration attorney David Wolfe Leopold said. A person rejected for the new plan won't automatically be deported unless he or she is a criminal.
Others might not apply because they don't know about it. The 2012 program was targeted at students, who tend to be plugged into the world around them, and 10 percent of them still told the Immigration Policy Center they didn't know how to apply.
Conversely, the controversy over whether Obama overstepped by ordering immigration reform without Congress is actually helping create buzz, said Williams, who heads the immigration lawyers association. "In the last 24 hours, our members' phones have been ringing off the hook. People are contacting lawyers, looking around to find out 'Does this apply to me?' " she said.