WASHINGTON — In less than four months, President Barack Obama is due to roll out one of the most ambitious and controversial programs of his presidency: an effort to grant a reprieve from deportation for millions of adult immigrants living in the country illegally.
The challenges posed by the new immigration program will be enormous. Although no one really knows how many people will step forward when it opens in May, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office is projecting 1.3 million applicants in the first six months — adding a giant new workload to the agency, which now processes about 6.3 million other applications annually.
An estimated 55,000 people in Maryland are eligible to apply for the program, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. And local immigration advocacy groups are beginning to gear up for the increase.
CASA de Maryland has held dozens of workshops in Baltimore as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties to prepare residents for the new program. The group intends to transition to a more hands-on effort — helping people fill out applications — in May.
"Right now, it's providing information to people," said George Escobar, director of health and human services for CASA. "In May we will start providing workshops where we're going to be screening people against very specific criteria. … We'll be checking people's documents and sitting down with people one-on-one."
The cost of implementing the president's executive actions will be $324 million to $484 million over the next three years, according to a draft of a letter from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. The funding will come from program fees, the agency says.
With time short and the stakes high, the Obama administration knows it cannot afford another debacle like 2013's botched introduction of HealthCare.gov, the federal website at the heart of the president's landmark health care law.
In addition to the growing bureaucracy, a host of other challenges, including defining who is eligible, await the agency. One key difference from the HealthCare.gov rollout: no complicated website. Federal immigration services still do most business on paper and through the mail, and hopefuls will mail in applications.
Those applications will be handled at a 12-story office complex in Virginia, with a staff of government workers supplemented by private contractors. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services signed a $7.8 million lease for 246,000 square feet and plans to spend about $40 million a year on salaries and benefits for 1, 000 new government employees.
"It's going to be a monumental effort," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group that usually backs the administration's immigration initiatives. "It's arguably the biggest (immigration) program they've ever had to implement, and with a population that has done everything possible to avoid contact with authorities."
In November, Obama announced the executive action that would temporarily defer deportation for up to 5 million of the 11.2 million people living here illegally.
By far the largest chunk will come in a program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. An estimated 4 million people are thought to fit the criteria, which require applicants to have lived here continuously since Jan. 1, 2010, have no serious crimes on their record and be a parent of a U.S. citizen or other legal resident.
Republicans in Congress are fuming at what they consider Obama's unconstitutional overreach of executive power and have been looking for ways to stop the program's implementation. The House voted to block any spending on the new programs. The measure failed to pass the Senate.
Also, administration officials are nervously watching a federal courthouse in Texas, where a judge will hear a challenge to Obama's plan from 26 states, most led by Republican governors.
"Processing these illegal actions will obviously be very expensive," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, avociferous critic of the executive action. "To carry out his plan he will need to move money from lawful enforcement programs."
The program will be modeled on the successful rollout of the administration's 2012 deferred deportation program for young people, the so-called DREAMers. In that program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the agency has handled more than 860,000 applications, with some backlogs and delays but no problems like the HealthCare.gov debacle.
The new rules expanded DACA, which provides a haven from deportation for immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16. Around 300,000 more DREAMers are thought to be eligible; immigration offices will begin accepting those applications Feb. 18.
Some 5,000 more people in Maryland are expected to be eligible for that expanded program.
The DAPA application process will be low-tech, if not exactly low-budget. Like a lot of federal agencies, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has struggled with information technology; it's spent about $1 billion on an electronic immigration system, but it's still so clunky and limited that immigration officers can work twice as fast on paper, according to an inspector general's report from July.
For a program of this size, simple is probably better, said one longtime immigration reform advocate.
"Does anybody want to stand up a website that crashes like HealthCare.gov?" asked Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor to the National Council of La Raza.
The agency will continue to rely on private contractors to help move the paperwork mountain. It starts with the banking firm of J.P. Morgan Chase, which will be paid to open envelopes, scan in applications and deposit checks at one of its giant processing centers in Dallas and Phoenix.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department said that the cost of those services was about $96 million last year.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also will hire another firm to do records work for DAPA, a deal that may cost as much as $30 million to $40 million for the first year, according to contractor estimates. In a bid document, the agency projects that half the eligible population for DAPA – about 1.9 million people – will apply in the first 18 months.
The agency anticipates a torrent of more than 800,000 applications in the first 90 days, and a corresponding surge of paperwork that will take about 1,000 contract employees to handle, at least temporarily.
The immigration service has put a rush on the effort to find a firm for the records work, asking for proposals by Feb. 23.
The agency will be hard-pressed to get enough staff in place by May to handle a program of this size, a former homeland security official told a Senate committee last week. The agency will likely have to divert workers from other jobs to make up the difference — possibly leading to delays in green card applications or other immigration programs, said Luke Bellocchi, the agency's former deputy ombudsman.
"This is the problem with trying to push through so many applications all at once without having the proper resources," Bellocchi said.
The immigration services agency says it will be ready.
"USCIS is on pace to have several hundred employees on board and trained by mid-May, which will ensure every case processed by USCIS receives a thorough, case-by-case review under our guidelines," said agency spokesman Chris Bentley, acknowledging that the agency may have to pull workers from other tasks to help if there's an early surge.
Because most of the agency's budget comes from fees, the administration says it does not need Congress' authority to spend money on the program. The fee for DAPA will be $465.
But the department will have to spend millions before the fees for the new program start coming in.
The agency also is trying to solve other challenges with the program — starting with settling questions about who's eligible, according to department officials and immigration experts who have been part of the discussions. A big one: How will the agency define a parent? For instance, will step-parents be eligible, and what happens if those parents get divorced? What about common-law spouses?
CASA's Escobar says those questions in particular have come up frequently with people he works with in Maryland and Virginia. He said that while federal officials have been keeping groups such as his informed, it's too early to begin helping people apply until the regulations are issued.
Another thorny question has come up about the kinds of documents applicants will need to produce to show they have lived in the U.S. for five years. Many DREAMers relied on school records, even attaching year-by-year class portraits and report cards to their applications.
For adults, leases, paychecks, utility bills and bank records will be acceptable, but for people who've been living here illegally and trying to stay under the radar, that kind of proof might be thin.
"Documentation is going to be much harder for this population," said Michelle Sardone, legalization program director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "You don't want people to take advantage of the situation, but you don't want to make it so difficult that people can't get in."
While advocates are planning a publicity campaign to coax people to step forward and apply, none of that will matter if the launch of the program doesn't go smoothly. The political furor in Washington probably won't scare people away, they say, but big delays and snafus might.
"What will matter much more is events on the ground," Kamasaki said. "If it takes six months for anybody to get approved, that's going to affect participation rates. If they are getting approvals in two to three months, then the skeptics are more likely to come forward."
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this report.