Lionel Jimenez let out a deep sigh of relief when the process was finally over.
An attorney had just told the Berkmar High School graduate that his application for a two-year reprieve from deportation was complete and that he could mail it off.
The 19-year-old was one step closer to living without fear that he would be separated from his family and expelled from the country where he has lived most of his life. He and his younger sister overstayed their visas after their parents brought them from Chile to the United States as young children.
Jimenez was among hundreds of immigrants Saturday who filed into the Latin American Association on Buford Highway and sought help applying for the reprieve and authorization to work legally here.
The benefits are part of a new White House policy that applies to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were young and who are enrolled in school or have completed school and have not committed violent crimes.
Nationwide, 82,361 people have applied for “deferred action” since the government started accepting applications on Aug. 15, according to figures the government released Friday. Of those, 29 have been approved thus far — a fast turnaround in four weeks, considering it can take many months to obtain deferred action. Federal officials said they were not able to immediately provide a state-by-state breakdown.
Critics say the White House is making an end-run around Congress with its new immigration policy and sending a signal that it’s OK to enter the country illegally. In a statement issued last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, accused the president of putting illegal immigrants ahead of legal immigrants.
“Such a quick turnaround for these amnesty applications raises serious concerns about fraud and a lack of thorough vetting,” he said. “This will undoubtedly create a backlog for legal immigrants and then the American people will be on the hook to pay for the president’s failed policies.”
Proponents say the process is a humane way to treat young immigrants who, in many cases, had no say in whether they were brought to the United States. They said the new policy will also help the government focus more on deporting violent criminals.
Three hundred immigrants were expected to attend Saturday’s event held by the Latin American Association, Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and American Immigration Lawyers Association Georgia-Alabama chapter. Immigrants started lining up outside the building long before the event began at 9 a.m., clutching folders full of photos, travel documents, school transcripts and bank records.
To apply, immigrants must pay $465 and submit to background checks. To become eligible for work permits, they must also demonstrate “economic necessity.” Those who are spared from deportation will not be given legal status under the policy. But they may reapply for deferred action and work authorization.
Jimenez showed up with his girlfriend, mother, younger sister and his sister’s boyfriend. He said he has successfully avoided drawing the attention of immigration authorities by staying out of fights in school and catching rides with his girlfriend.
“As soon as I see cops,” he said, “I get that gut feeling. I get scared.”
He said he will apply for a Georgia driver’s license if the government grants him a reprieve. He also plans to get a job and save for college.
After a short wait outside Saturday, Jimenez and his sister were let into the building, where lawyers and other volunteers helped them get their applications in order. They were done in about four hours. One of the attorneys pronounced Jimenez’s application “beautiful.”
But Jimenez wasn’t really done. Not yet. The attorney used white-out to correct some of the information on his application. It wasn’t neat enough for him. He planned to go home and type up his application again, draft a table of contents for it and turn the whole thing into something like a book. He wants it perfect. Too much is riding on it.