Obama actions leave immigrants excited but nervous

What happens to deferred-action immigrants when Obama leaves office?

When Rosalinda Monsalvo applies to avoid deportation under President Barack Obama's recently announced immigration program, she'll do so knowing she is exactly the kind of person the administration wanted to help.

But that doesn't mean the process will be effortless. Coming out of the shadows will require work — and a leap of faith.

"I'm scared," said the 31-year-old Baltimore woman, who will turn over her personal information and her fingerprints to the government with little guarantee Obama's plan will survive court challenges or be continued by the next president.

Though widely celebrated by immigrants, the executive actions Obama announced in November to offer temporary status to as many as 5 million immigrants in the country illegally are posing challenges that may affect how many people ultimately sign up.

Some are concerned about the future of the controversial program. Others may face difficulty documenting that they meet its requirements. Advocates are worried that some may become victims of fraud before they even get the chance to apply.

Frustrated by a lack of action in Congress, Obama unveiled a series of unilateral steps on immigration Nov. 20. Undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens will be allowed to defer the threat of deportation for three years and apply for work permits, as long as they meet a host of other requirements including criminal background checks.

The administration is also expanding a 2012 program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that allowed immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to apply for relief. The latest effort will allow those who entered the country by January 2010 to apply, moving the cutoff date from June 2007.

While the announcement has been applauded by immigrants — and criticized by Republicans — some note that no one knows what will happen to the immigrants in the program when Obama leaves office in 2017.

Elizabeth Keyes, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said similar concerns were raised in 2012 when Obama created the program for child immigrants, colloquially known as DACA.

"We definitely saw that problem with DACA, people being very nervous," she said. "Most of the people I worked with directly did eventually apply anyway, but they were all nervous and remain slightly nervous because they know it's not as stable a status to have."

About 702,000 people have had their applications accepted for review under the program for young arrivals out of roughly 1.1 million who are eligible, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Obama administration is attempting to assuage the concerns. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez said recently that his agency will not share applicant information with authorities unless the person has a serious criminal history or poses a threat.

Advocates said another requirement that parents applying for deferred status may struggle with is documenting their residency in the country for five years. It's not yet clear what the government will require to prove residency, and guidance is not expected until later this year.

"The No. 1 obstacle is going to be proving residency in the country," said George Escobar, director of health and human services with CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group.

CASA has organized information sessions around the state to begin educating potential applicants about the requirements. Escobar spoke to several hundred people gathered at Patterson High School in the Hopkins-Bayview neighborhood recently.

Monsalvo attended the session with her daughter. Monsalvo arrived from Mexico 13 years ago, when her daughter was six months old. She has raised a family in Baltimore, hasn't been convicted of a crime and has another daughter who was born in the U.S.

While nervous, Monsalvo also appeared excited. Applying, she said, was worth the risk.

"It's something that will secure us," she said. "At least for three years we can be not worried."

Monica Camacho, a 20-year-old Baltimore resident, agreed. She already has deferred status but said her brothers will likely apply under the new initiative.

"It is scary," said Camacho, a student who also volunteers for CASA. "But they're not worried. We've waited so long, and I feel like they know that they have something. So they're just going to risk it and see what happens."

The government is not expected to begin taking applications for parents until May.

Several lawyers who represent immigrants said they believe the concerns are widely overshadowed by excitement.

"People who are coming in to see me are more curious about how to apply rather than risks of applying," said James Montana, an attorney and business manager with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

"I'm not getting a lot of fear," he said.

Others noted a concern that's been pervasive in the Hispanic community for years: con artists who pose as lawyers offering to help immigrants navigate regulations — for a fee. The problem, often referred to as "notario fraud," arises from the fact that the Spanish word for "notary" is translated into "lawyer" in some Latin American countries.

Advocates said they have already seen advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers in the region encouraging people to pay money to sign up for the new programs now, despite the fact they're not yet available.

"There is always the danger that immigrants will become the victims of scams," said Jonelle Ocloo, an attorney in Columbia who chairs the immigration law section of the Maryland State Bar Association.

"So in addition to spreading the facts about the executive action," she said, "we also want to warn immigrants to stay clear of scammers."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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