As the feds open the doors for young undocumented immigrants to seek temporary refuge from deportation, New Haven legal aid has opened a help center downtown—to try to prevent a dream from becoming a ripoff.
Beginning Aug. 15, New Haven legal aid is opening up a one-stop shop for young “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and now seek to take advantage of President Obama’s landmark welcoming gesture.
Obama announced in June that the federal government will allow certain immigrants who came here without permission as children to apply for “deferred action,” a two-year safeguard against deportation, enabling them to get temporary work permits but not citizenship. The new federal policy applies to undocumented immigrants who were under 16 when they came to the U.S., have lived here for five continuous years, have a clean criminal record, and were under 30 as of June 15, 2012. Immigrants must be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school, or have served honorably in the military.
The executive order comes while some members of Congress have pushed a more far-reaching DREAM Act, a bill that would young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
New Haven’s group of “dreamers” includes immigrants like Jordy Padilla (pictured above), who graduated from Wilbur Cross High School. Padilla, who’s 19, moved here from Ecuador at age 7. He’s currently enrolled in the University of New Haven, studying to be a civil engineer. Because of his legal status, he has been unable to land internships in engineering. He plans to take up Obama’s invitation to apply for deferred action, which would allow him to get a driver’s license and a work permit.
“It’s giving us a chance to dream bigger,” Padilla said.
The city estimates there could be as many as 2,000 dreamers in New Haven eligible for deferred status. The federal government is accepting applications beginning on Aug. 15.
Mayor John DeStefano said the new policy presents a great opportunity for young New Haveners to “make this a stronger place” by launching careers and getting better jobs. It also presents the threat that they might be ripped off by lawyers seeking to take advantage of a population that is often vulnerable to fraud.
Immigrants have already gotten duped into paying $1,500 to $2,000 for a deferred status application, according to the mayor.
To “prevent people from being taken advantage of,” DeStefano and local advocacy groups consolidated efforts by arranging a new central entry point for young people seeking deferred action.
New Haven Legal Assistance will coordinate the effort. Beginning Wednesday, students can call legal aid at (203) 946-4811 to make an appointment. The first visit will be free, and folks won’t get scammed, pledged James Bhandary-Alexander of legal aid.
“Anybody can call us, get us an appointment and conduct an initial screening,” he said. That part will be free. If the immigrant meets the income threshold—income below 125 percent of the federal poverty level—legal aid will help that person for free.
Immigrants with higher salaries will be referred to a reputable private lawyer, to Apostle Immigrant Services, or the Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization at the Yale Law School.
“The whole process will be entirely confidential and safe,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
Mayor DeStefano said the city is not paying anything towards the effort, but his staff have made some phone calls seeking philanthropic donations.