PHOENIX -- On a recent Saturday, 16 years after her parents brought her into the U.S. illegally, Anayeli Fernandez stood in a long line outside a high school here to learn about President Obama’s deportation deferral program that also grants a work permit to eligible applicants.
At 21, the high school graduate is a prime candidate for the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and she is applying for its benefits. “It’s an opportunity for me to go to school, for me to work, for me to help my parents out financially,” said Fernandez, application in hand.
The Phoenix resident and thousands of other young people who came here illegally as children – or overstayed their visas – are flocking to similar workshops around the country to take advantage of the immigration program that was announced by Obama in June and took effect August 15. The program assures qualified applicants that they won't be deported for two years while enabling them to obtain legal documents such as a renewable work permit and a driver's license. The program does not grant permanent residency or citizenship. The policy incorporates some elements of the DREAM Act – the bill that would allow permanent residency for some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors. It has elicited excitement — and some apprehension — among illegal immigrants who may qualify.
More than 82,000 illegal immigrants have submitted applications as of September 13, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data released on Friday. Nearly 64,000 immigrants are scheduled to get their fingerprints and photographs taken, and more than 1,600 have submitted that biometric data and await review of their applications. So far, 29 applications have been approved.
RELATED: U.S. Educated Immigrants Return to Their Homelands
The speed with which the first approvals have been granted drew criticism from some Republican lawmakers, who questioned whether the administration was properly verifying the applicants. The program itself has also attracted widespread criticism and accusations that Obama aims to secure the Latino vote in an election year. “This is not at all what deferred action has even been in the past,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, who calls the program a “blanket temporary amnesty.” “It’s not what Congress ever intended to exist,” added Beck. His organization, which favors lower levels of immigration, is financing a lawsuit that immigration agents recently filed in Texas challenging the constitutionality of the president's directive.
The Obama administration had faced criticism from Latinos and other groups that charged he hadn’t fulfilled his pledge to reform the country’s immigration laws. Yet as Election Day nears, Obama still holds an overwhelming edge among Latino registered voters, leading Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 68 percent to 26 percent in a new impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll.
Romney looked to blunt that edge Monday in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles in which he vowed to "work with Republicans and Democrats to permanently fix our immigration system."
“For years, Republicans and Democrats seem to have been more interested in playing politics with immigration than with actually fixing it,” Romney said. “Candidate Obama said that one of his highest priorities would be to fix immigration in his first year in office. Despite his party having majorities in both house of Congress, the president never even offered up a bill. Like so many issues confronting our nation, when it comes to immigration, politics has been put ahead of people for too long.”
Even before Romney spoke, the Obama campaign posted a Web video labeling his efforts to woo Latinos an “extreme makeover” by the candidate who has advocated self-deportation and said he would veto the DREAM Act if it were passed by Congress. Republican lawmakers have blocked versions of the bill repeatedly.
SOME STATES RESIST
Monday’s political jabs underscore the importance of the Latino vote, and the sway Obama’s deferred action plan could have. Up to 1.7 million young people could be eligible for the immigration program, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, while another 2.7 million immigrants are ineligible. To qualify, applicants must pay a $465 fee and meet a long list of requirements, including proof that they are former or current students under 31 who have lived in the country continuously since June 15, 2007. A serious criminal record deems applicants ineligible.
Five states – California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois – are home to nearly 60 percent of the potential beneficiaries, according to the Migration Policy Center. But with Arizona leading the way, the federal program is being met with resistance in some states. The same day the application process began, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who has often clashed with the Obama administration over immigration laws, in an executive order forbade state agencies to give deferred action recipients a driver's license or other public benefits in Arizona. The governor noted that Obama's policy "does not confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional benefits."
Nebraska and Texas soon followed Arizona's footsteps.
Other places, like New York, are moving in the opposite direction. State officials there have set aside $450,000 in grants for organizations that assist program applicants.
At the Phoenix workshop, young men and women, many accompanied by parents and other relatives, picked up applications, conferred with attorneys and listened to community leaders speak about deferred action as the first step to a brighter future for young people without legal status.
While potential applicants say they are hopeful about the program, many worry about its fate under a Romney administration. The Republican candidate has not clearly stated whether he would reverse it if he wins the presidency.
Applying to the program carries some risk because so much personal information must be disclosed to the government, said Edgar Rodriguez, who was born in Mexico but has lived 21 of his 22 years in the United States.
Rodriguez, who graduated from high school in 2010, said he is willing to take a chance if it means being able to work legally and attend college. Although some states allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, Arizona requires them to pay out-of-state tuition, which keeps people like Rodriguez from enrolling. They also don't qualify for financial aid and most scholarships.
Rodriguez, who wants to study business administration, views the deferred action program as one that will open doors. "I consider myself from here and I hope to take advantage of this situation and make the best of it," he said. "At the end, it will be worth it."
Still being debated is what impact these young workers will have on the economy. The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, estimates that 58 percent of potential applicants are already in the labor force. And the Immigration Policy Center noted in a recent report that the initiative is likely to lead to more immigrants staying in school. “Currently, only 5-10% of unauthorized high-school graduates go to college, and most unauthorized youths are forced to work illegally in the cash economy as domestic servants, day laborers, and sweatshop factory workers,” the report said.
Beck, of NumbersUSA, views applicants as additional competition for millions of unemployed workers, especially high school graduates who usually work in the manufacturing and service industries. The program "should not be done on the backs of unemployed Americans," he said.
Missing from Obama's program is how to diminish the harm to those out of work, added Beck, who said it could be achieved by reducing the number of permanent- residency visas granted annually and mandating that employers use the E-Verify federal database to check the legal status of new hires. "The top priority should not be these illegal aliens," he said. "The top priority should be the suffering of unemployed Americans."
Those who benefit from deferred status will be job-hunting in the country's worst recession since the Great Depression. The national unemployment rate stands at 8.1 percent, but Hispanics and young workers fare worse. As of August, the unemployment rate for Hispanics was 10.2 percent. For people between the ages of 16 to 24 it was 15.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But even in challenging times, keeping skilled workers out of the labor market "would be a sub-optimal use of resources for an economy," said Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. The competition for jobs is tough in the current climate but since they're paying for the right to work, program applicants likely will be aggressive job seekers, the professor said.
That is certainly true for Fernandez, a Mexico City native, who is eager for a work permit. After sitting at home for three years, since her high school graduation, she's ready to start earning money for college tuition. “I really want to go to school, I really want to be a paramedic," she said. "Ever since I was a little girl, ever since elementary school, I knew that was going to be my career."