Next step for illegal immigrants under new program: Getting the paperwork in order

A crowd packs a South Philadelphia meeting for information on the DACA initiative. DACA will let young undocumented immigrants work legally in the U.S. if they meet certain criteria. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
A crowd packs a South Philadelphia meeting for information on the DACA initiative. DACA will let young undocumented immigrants work legally in the U.S. if they meet certain criteria. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer) (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 17, 2012

After living illegally in the United States for almost a decade, 19-year-old college student Sheila Quintana has the prize in her sights: a Social Security number.

"Having a nine-digit number doesn't make you a better person," said Quintana, of West Chester. "But it does make life easier."

On Wednesday, the federal government embarked on a new, and fervidly debated, program that allows young undocumented immigrants to work legally in this country, providing they meet certain criteria. More than one million applications are expected to begin streaming in by mail, and, Quintana says, hers will be among them.

Under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, eligible petitioners must have been younger than 16 when they came to the United States; be under 31 on June 15; have earned a high school diploma or GED, or served honorably in the military. They may have no felony convictions. Those who are approved will get not only work authorization, but also deferral of the possibility of deportation for two years.

An estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants are eligible nationwide, including as many as 30,000 in Pennsylvania and 70,000 in New Jersey.

Born in Mexico, Quintana was 10 when she and her parents settled illegally in the United States. She is now a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

If accepted under DACA, she would be able, for instance, to apply for paid internships, not to mention a driver's license.

She will likely wait months for a decision, so complex is the process.

Applicants must pay $465, complete a six-page form, provide voluminous supporting documents, and submit their fingerprints for criminal-records background checks.

"This process is hugely about verification, to make sure that you came when you say you did, that you have a diploma from the place that you say you do," said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a nonprofit immigrant-services organization. "All that minutiae of daily life is the stuff that [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] expects to get on paper."

Consequently, "nobody reputable would be trying to file" Wednesday, she said. "It would be extraordinarily unusual to have all the ducks lined up" that fast.

Anxious though she may be for a decision, Quintana said she plans to take her time. "I think it's important not to rush the process."

That sense of caution, if not also some confusion, pervaded a South Philadelphia auditorium Wednesday evening, when the immigrant-rights group Juntos hosted an informational meeting, one of many to be held by advocacy organizations in the local immigrant community.

Karla Rojas, 18, a recent graduate of Academy at Palumbo High School, arrived early for the standing-room-only assembly of about 85 people. Born in Mexico, she was 7 when she came to the United States with her parents. She starts part time at Community College of Philadelphia next month.

She was a high school junior, preparing for the SATs, when she asked her mother for her Social Security number and was told, "You don't have one."

That alone scared her, but the announcement of DACA about a year later lifted her spirits.

"I have all my paperwork. I have to finish filling out the application," she said, "and then I'll send it. It's going to feel good to have a real ID."

Jacqueline Gomez, 19, a rising senior at South Philadelphia High School, was 5 when her parents brought her from Mexico to Philadelphia. She, too, will be a DACA applicant.

"I like the idea of a working permit," she said, "but it upsets me, on the other side, that our parents can still be deported at any time."

Potential applicants also have been consulting area immigration lawyers, to whom they have expressed both excitement over the promise of DACA and trepidation.

"You get employment authorization, which is very valuable," said lawyer Djung Tran. "The downside is that you raise your hand and say, 'Here I am,' and give your information to the government. Before, you were under their radar."

In addition, the program was created by administrative order, not statutory law. So, Tran said, "if there is a change in administration and the new administration doesn't agree with what the Obama administration is doing, they could take away the deferral and put people in a pipeline to deportation."

Quintana's immigration status had been a closely held secret until June, when she went public and blocked traffic at an immigrant-rights rally in Montgomery County. She was arrested. That misdemeanor charge is pending.

Under DACA, applicants who pose no serious threat to public safety are allowed two misdemeanor convictions.

A common concern is the implications for parents, who are likewise undocumented yet ineligible for DACA.

Federal immigration officials have said they will not use applicants' information to target their parents, but fear persists.

"Some people will be anxious about bringing the heat on their mom and dad," said immigration lawyer David Bennion. "I don't think it is a priority for the government to go after parents of undocumented youth. The forms themselves don't request information about the parents."

The Welcoming Center is coordinating community outreach with Esperanza College, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration Service, Catholic Social Services, Nationalities Service Center, and the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia.

A 10 a.m. information session is set for Thursday at the consulate, 111 S. Fifth St.

Another goal of the public meetings is to warn of scammers.

Applicants can expect to pay less than $1,500 to a lawyer for advice and help with paperwork, attendees at the South Philadelphia meeting were told. Citizenship and Immigration Services cautions applicants against seeking advice, at hefty fees, from "immigration helpers."

"The wrong help," it says, "can hurt."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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