By Kitty Merrill
Worried that providing personal information might prompt unpleasant action from the government, few immigrants have so far, taken advantage of the newly minted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy. The turnout last Friday night, at a forum hosted by Congressman Tim Bishop and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services may be evidence of the fear.
Offering an overview of the program, adopted last June and designed to offer relief from deportation to undocumented young people, Charles Akalski, USCIS field office director, assured that unless the applicant poses a threat to national security or public safety, information will not be shared with their sister agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I know that's a very big concern," he said. But USCIS relies on very specific criteria, when it comes to referring any applicant for enforcement. If he or she has not committed any crimes, doesn't pose a threat to public safety or national security, or present fraudulent documents, no ICE referral will be made. Applicants will not automatically be placed into removal proceedings, he emphasized, adding, "We know you're illegal, but we're not going to do anything about it."
Akalski described the application process to an audience of about two dozen in the community room of Bridgehampton National Bank's flagship site in Bridgehampton. Following an introduction by Bishop, who left to attend another function, three attorneys who specialize in immigration law – Melinda Rubin, Mitchell Zwaik, and Frank Fountain, joined Akalski on the dais.
Bishop reported that an earlier workshop in the district drew about 30 interested applicants and his office has assisted another 50 young people with the process.
Akalski underscored that the department's website offers a wealth of information for potential applicants, including the guidelines he presented. Applicants may be considered for the program if they are under 31, and came to the country before the age of 16. They must prove five years' residence in the US prior to the June 15 adoption of the policy, and show they were physically here as of that date. Applicants must be currently in school, have a high school diploma or be a veteran of the Armed Forces or Coast Guard, and at least 15 years of age at the time of filing.
Potential program enrollees must have a "fairly clean" criminal record, Akalski explained. A felony or "significant misdemeanor" conviction, or more than three misdemeanor convictions render the applicant ineligible. A significant misdemeanor is any offense of domestic violence, sex abuse, burglary, unlawful possession of a firearm, DWI or drug distribution.
Basically, he said, "anyone can be considered," even if the person is already in the midst of deportation proceedings.
Forms are available on the USCIS website, but can't be filed online.
The attorneys spoke to more specified aspects of the program, with Fountain offering an extended story of a client who suffered a scam and has spent 17 years questing for documentation. The USCIS website offers assistance with finding reputable immigration attorneys.
Zwaik said there is "little or no chance" the program will be used to deport people "even if there's a new president in office next year." There's a firewall between US CIS and ICE that can only be breached under very limited circumstances, he said, adding, "If they breach that firewall, there would be a massive lawsuit against the government."
"And we don't want that," Akalski intoned.