Agencies across the country that help undocumented immigrants are receiving a steady stream of phone calls since the Obama administration announced a change in its deportation policy a few days ago.
Anxious callers want to know: What does the policy mean? Can they apply to remain in the country? Should they turn themselves in to qualify for a visa?
Christian Ramirez, from the American Friends Service Committee, makes it clear what the policy is not.
“It’s not an amnesty or immigration reform,” said Ramirez, the organization’s national coordinator, based in San Diego.
Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced that the U.S. government would evaluate case-by-case 300,000 pending deportations. The government will review every person’s family history, community ties, criminal record, among other criteria, to decide if his or her deportation should be put on hold.
Those whose deportation is halted will be given the opportunity to apply for a permit to work legally in the country. That decision, however, is not necessarily permanent, Napolitano said.
She said that the government wants to identity “low priority” offenders to focus on convicted felons who pose a threat to the public and should be removed from the country.
Ramirez said that many callers have an erroneous idea of what the new policy means. Representatives of similar organizations across the country echoed his experience and voiced a common concern: “unscrupulous” people could take advantage of this confusion to sell false hope.
“Regrettably, we have had reports of people who have turned to ‘notaries’ or other people who are falsely claiming that they can legalize people for money,” said Catherine Vargas, the spokeswoman for the National Immigration Forum.
The number of undocumented immigrants is unknown, though estimates place that number at between 10 and 11 million.
Under President Obama, immigration authorities have deported nearly 1 million people from 2008 to 2010. He has been criticized for increasing the pace of deportations compared to his predecessor, and expelling thousands who do not have criminal records
This is a good time to review the rights immigrants have, said Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“The most important thing is to advise immigrants not to sign the form for a voluntary departure from the country before talking to an attorney or a non-profit organization,” said Salas in a phone conference for Latino media.
“We are asking them not to turn themselves in to immigration authorities thinking that they are going to benefit from these changes, that would be a grave error,” she stressed.
“Do not allow yourselves to be fooled. There will always be people that want to take advantage of the situation,” she advised.
Carlina Tapia Ruano, a Chicago-based attorney who is past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she is telling people who call that that announcement does not mean there is a “new visa nor permit to be able to stay in the country or work legally.”
Some immigrants see the new policy simply with resignation.
“Tito,” a Chula Vista resident, is one of them. The 38-year-old construction worker, who requested that his real name not be published, has lived in the United States without authorization for five years. He said he is the father of three children, all U.S. citizens.
He said he’s heard about the change in the deportation policy.
“It’s not going to help a lot of people,” he said. “It does not help me at all.”
The man said he’s waited for years for the help that Barack Obama promised when he was a candidate for president. But three years after he was elected, the man said he has lost hope.
“Sincerely, I don’t expect anything now.”