WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children can start applying Wednesday for a deportation reprieve under a new program established by the Obama administration.
Democrats in Congress tried and failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would grant legal residency and the chance to become a U.S. citizen to young illegal immigrants who have clean criminal records and completed some college or served in the military.
President Obama decided in June to take matters into his own hands, announcing a program that will allow that group of immigrants, known as DREAMers, to receive a two-year deferment of deportation proceedings. If approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, those DREAMers can also apply for a work permit and later reapply for another deportation deferment.
On Tuesday, Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency is ready to process the flood of applications, and reminded people that this will not give illegal immigrants full legal residency.
"USCIS has developed a rigorous review process for deferred action requests under guidelines issued by (Department of Homeland) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano," said USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. "Childhood arrivals who meet the guidelines and whose cases are deferred will now be able to live without fear of removal, and be able to more fully contribute their talents to our great nation."
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the program opens the door for fraud and unleashes a torrent of unemployed workers at a time when the country's 8.3% unemployment rate is already making life difficult for U.S. citizens and legal residents.
"President Obama and his administration routinely put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Smith said in a statement. "With this track record, it's looking more likely that even President Obama may lose his job in this economy when Americans go to the polls this November."
The Department of Homeland Security has not estimated how many people could participate in the new program. But the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that up to 1.7 million illegal immigrants could qualify.
The application fee will be $465, and Mayorkas said that should cover the costs of hiring additional staff to process all the applications. DHS officials said a small number of cases can have their fees waived in extreme cases.
Applicants must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15 (when the program was announced), entered the U.S. before reaching their 16th birthday, have clean criminal records and must have either graduated high school or be on that track.
While supporters have been relieved since Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the plan in June, they are now more concerned with illegal immigrants fearful of applying, or being taken advantage of by real or fake immigration attorneys.
Gerardo Salinas, 25, an illegal immigrant whose family brought him to Chicago from Mexico when he was 13, said he heard radio ads for lawyers offering assistance shortly after Napolitano's decision. He visited two attorneys, and they each said it would cost $1,700 for them to collect his paperwork and submit it to the federal government.