DENVER – Latino advocacy groups celebrated Wednesday, as new immigration policy takes effect that will allow undocumented immigrants to seek work permits without fear of deportation.
“I’ve gone through hell. I’ve gone through many depressions, but now I am hopeful again,” said Luis Serrano, 21, an undocumented immigrant from Longmont who is a student at Metro State University of Denver. “This is why I am here — so I can show what I am capable of.
Serrano, whose parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 10, took part in a press conference at West High School Wednesday morning and called the new policy of deferred action “a step in the right direction” that will enable more undocumented people like him to contribute to the Colorado economy.
“We’ve come out of the shadows and embraced this blessing of empowerment,” Serrano said. “In the years to come, undocumented youth and their families, hopefully, will be seen not as a threat to the American way of life but as an untapped resource.”
Starting Wednesday, people who arrived in the United States as children and without documentation can apply to work without fear of deportation, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday.
“This afternoon, USCIS makes available online the forms and instructions for individuals who will request deferred action for childhood arrivals,” USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters in a conference call.
As many as 1.7 million youths may qualify for the program, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. Hans Meyer, an attorney at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said this new program will impact between 10,000 and 15,000 undocumented young immigrants in the state of Colorado.
The announcement comes two months after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that people who arrived in the United States as children may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years subject to renewal, and would then be eligible for work authorization.
The program, dubbed Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created in June under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama.
“Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship,” Mayorkas said Tuesday.
The $465 application fee will fund the administrative costs of the program, including a biometric check and issuance of a secure work-authorization document, he said.
Each request will be examined for possible fraud, he said.
The forms and instructions are posted at www.uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals.
When he signed the order in June, Obama said the changes will make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient and more just.”
The shift on the politically volatile issue of immigration policy has elicited praise from Latino leaders, while Republicans reacted with outrage, saying the move amounts to amnesty – a negative buzzword among conservatives – and usurps congressional authority.
“This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix,” Obama said. “This is a temporary stopgap measure.”
Noting children of illegal immigrants “study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, befriend our kids, pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama said, “it makes no sense to expel talented young people who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans.”
The president declared that the policy change is “the right thing to do.”
Under the new policy, people younger than 30 who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military, can get a two-year deferral from deportation and apply for work permits.
Participants must prove they have been living in the country continuously for at least five years.
The change is part of a department effort to target resources at illegal immigrants who pose a greater threat, such as criminals and those trying to enter the country now, Napolitano said.
The move addresses a concern of the Latino community and includes some of the provisions of a Democratic proposal called the DREAM Act that failed to win enough Republican support to gain congressional approval.
Obama has been criticized by Latino leaders for an overall increase in deportations of undocumented immigrants in recent years. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 396,906 illegal immigrants, the largest number in the agency’s history.
Obama and Napolitano have called for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would put into law similar steps for children of illegal immigrants to continue living and working in the country.
Republicans who blocked Democratic efforts to change immigration laws have condemned the move, with some calling it an improper maneuver to skirt congressional opposition.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a GOP foe of Democratic proposals on immigration, threatened in June to sue to stop Obama “from implementing his unconstitutional and unlawful policy.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has called the decision “a classic Barack Obama move of choosing politics over leadership,” while House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has called the change a “decision to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants.”
Others predicted the move will tighten an already poor job market for young Americans.
However, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who sponsored the DREAM Act, said it “will give these young immigrants their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they’ve ever called home.”
Presumed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in June that the issue needs more substantive action than an executive order, which can be replaced by a subsequent president.
As president, Romney said, he would seek to provide “certainty and clarity for people who come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the actions of their parents.”
Latinos make up the fastest-growing immigrant population in the country, and the Latino vote is considered a crucial bloc for the November presidential election.
A spokeswoman for a major Latino group, the National Council of La Raza, hailed the administration’s move.
“In light of the congressional inaction on immigration reform, this is the right step for the administration to take at this time,” NCLR spokeswoman Laura Vazquez said in June.