By Mike Lillis - 08/05/12 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats in both chambers have launched a national effort to enroll young illegal immigrants in a new program letting them stay in the country without threat of deportation.
With the Obama administration's "deferred action" program set to take effect Aug. 15, the Democrats are organizing outreach programs nationwide to help potential beneficiaries navigate applications, understand fees and avoid expensive scams.
"We suspect that most of the 1 million eligible [people] will not need a lawyer," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Congress's most vocal immigrant-rights advocate, said Thursday during a press briefing at the Capitol. "If you see a lawyer, and they're calling you, and they're offering you something and they're asking you to write a check, run away!"
In Chicago, Gutierrez will join Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in hosting a workshop to get potential beneficiaries enrolled. At least 17 other cities, including Detroit and Los Angeles, are staging similar events.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the original Dream Act, said the outreach efforts are largely intended to beat back myths surrounding the soon-to-launch program, including the notion that rejected applicants will be marked for deportation.
"I think we can safely say [that] no one will be retaliated against because they submitted an application for which it turned out they didn't meet the requirements," Berman said.
The lawmakers are almost pleading with young illegal immigrants to take advantage of the help.
"We don't want you to be so desperate to cross that bridge [into the program] that you cross it with the wrong individuals," said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). "They are out there ready to profit from your anxiety."
Unveiled in June by the DHS, Obama's deferred action program will allow qualified illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to remain here — a concept modeled on the Dream Act legislation that has been unable to pass Congress.
The two-year program does not create a route to citizenship — like versions of the DREAM Act do — but it would empower high-achieving illegal immigrants to work or study without fear of deportation.
To be eligible, applicants must have come to the United States before the age of 16; lived in the country continuously for at least the last five years; obtained a high school degree, a GED or still be in school; and possess a clean criminal record.
"If you have criminal involvement, you're out," Gutierrez said.
Republicans have hammered Obama for the unilateral move, saying it was an unconstitutional power-grab that ignores the will of Congress.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and one of Obama's loudest critics on immigration policy, said Friday that the program "undermines the rule of law and gives lawbreakers an unfair advantage over legal immigrants."
"In order to process the millions of applications from illegal immigrants, the Obama administration will have to divert funding and other resources from processing legal immigration applications," Smith said in a statement responding to the new DHS guidelines. "This will lead to a backlog for legal immigrants who followed the rules, while allowing lawbreakers to skip to the front of the line."
Obama has fired back, arguing that the changes were necessary to protect talented kids from a Congress that wouldn't.
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans," Obama said in announcing the program. "They have been raised as Americans [and] understand themselves to be part of this country."
There was also a political significance to Obama's decision, as the immigration debate has put Mitt Romney, the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, in a tough spot. The former Massachusetts governor had tacked hard to the right against illegal immigrants during the hotly contested GOP primary — a move designed to appease conservatives who consider anything but deportation to be amnesty — but he's since softened that position in an effort to appeal to the country's growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
Capitol Hill Democrats are approaching the program's launch cautiously, seemingly aware that its success — both political and practical — hinges first on participation.
"It's an exciting situation," Berman said, "but if people don't know about it — if people don't know how to do it — it's a hollow kind-of a promise."
DHS is not accepting applications for the deferred action program before Aug. 15.