Thousands seek deportation reprieves in Georgia


Illegal immigration is a matter of deep concern to Georgians, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution devotes significant resources to bringing readers timely, in-depth stories examining every facet of the issue. Today, we look at the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation.

Georgia ranks eighth among states for the total number of illegal immigrants who have applied for a two-year reprieve from deportation under a controversial Obama administration program, new federal records show.

As of March 31, 15,417 people living in Georgia have filed paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which started in August of last year. Of those, 8,647 have been approved.

The federal program — which applies to immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children — provides a glimpse of what could happen if Congress passes legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Like the deferral program, the Senate legislation requires applicants to submit paperwork, go through background checks and pay fees.

Meanwhile, some legal obstacles have arisen. The federal program suffered a setback last week in a federal court in Texas. The judge in that case said a group suing to block the program is likely to succeed with arguments that it violates federal law. But U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, has delayed a final ruling until the parties submit more information. O’Connor ordered them to submit new briefs by Monday.

Ten U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and agents are suing to scrap the program, saying it unconstitutionally goes around Congress and violates federal immigration laws. Specifically, they say federal law requires them to put illegal immigrants they encounter into deportation proceedings.

“Clearly, the Obama administration is not above the law here,” said Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state, who is representing the ICE agents in their lawsuit against the government. Kobach added the judge’s order “vindicates many members of Congress and many outside observers who complained last summer that the president has no authority to do this.”

Proponents of the program say federal law gives the government broad discretion, including deciding whether to put people into deportation proceedings. They highlighted how the judge wrote in the order he issued last week that the government can later move to dismiss deportation proceedings.

David Martin, who teaches immigration and constitutional law at the University of Virginia, predicted the government would appeal if the judge issues an order halting the program.

“There is a strong possibility of reversal if an injunction is issued,” said Martin, who served as general counsel for the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

At the same time, Martin and other legal experts said the program could also be seen as a dress rehearsal if Congress creates a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S., including 440,000 the government estimated to be in Georgia in 2011.

Under the Senate legislation introduced last month, immigrants would first have to apply for a provisional legal status, pay $2,000 in penalties, submit to a background check and wait 10 years before they could seek green cards giving them legal permanent residency. Once they have green cards, they could apply for citizenship. People convicted of felonies or three or more misdemeanors would be barred.

Similarly, immigrants must fill out an application for deferred action, pay $465 in fees and submit to a background check. Those who have been convicted of a felony, “significant misdemeanor,” or three or more other misdemeanors are ineligible.

The deferral program should be used as a model if the Senate legislation passes, said David Leopold, general counsel and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“They put this process together very quickly, and it works remarkably well,” said Leopold, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland. “Sometimes the evidentiary and documentary requirements can look daunting, but it is amazing what people can piece together over the course of their lives.”

Georgia’s eighth-place ranking hews closely to its ninth-place position among states for the size of its population. California tops the list for people who have applied for the deportation deferral at 134,167. Nationwide so far, 488,782 have filed paperwork for the deferral.

Most of the immigrants who have been granted deportation deferrals came from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and South Korea, federal records show. In all, 354,002 Mexicans have applied for the program, and 209,978 have been approved so far.

Rigoberto Rivera is still waiting to hear. The Roswell High School graduate was illegally brought into the United States from Mexico when he was 10. He said he isn’t worried the program will be scrapped, calling the federal lawsuit a waste of time.

Rivera, 23, said a deportation deferral would allow him to apply for a Georgia driver’s license and work legally here so he could raise enough money to study criminal justice in college. He wants to become a law enforcement officer and hopes Congress will give him an opportunity to apply for citizenship.

“That is my main goal — to contribute to this country, to be part of it, to be part of the system,” he said.

Miriam Zuniga, who was also illegally brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a young child, said she applied for the deportation deferral in September and was approved in December. She called her experience applying “straightforward and easy.” The 21-year-old Buford resident is hopeful Congress will overhaul the nation’s immigration system so she also can apply for U.S. citizenship.

“I have always wanted it because I feel like I have lived here my whole life,” she said. “I want to do my part as a citizen to give back to the country that has given so much to me.”

*Top 10 states for illegal immigrants requesting a two-year reprieve from deportation and top five countries of origin of illegal immigrants requesting a two-year reprieve from deportation

State Applied Approved Country Applied Approved
1. California 134,167 73,104 1. Mexico 354,002 209,978
2. Texas 73,104 49,297 2. El Salvador 18,949 10,840
3. New York 26,365 12,324 3. Honduras 12,603 6,019
4. Illinois 24,928 19,055 4. Guatemala 11,817 6,424
5. Florida 20,764 9,065 5. South Korea 7,030 5,476
6. North Carolina 17,006 6,425      
7. Arizona 16,653 10,592      
8. Georgia 15,417 8,647      
9. New Jersey 14,390 8,483      
10. Colorado 10,105 6,050      
Nationwide 488,782 268,361      

*Information as of March 31

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

On June 15, the Obama administration announced a new policy called deferred action that spares certain illegal immigrants from deportation and gives them the right to work legally in the U.S. for two years. To be eligible, applicants must:

  • Be younger than 31 as of June 15.
  • Have come to the U.S. when they were under 16.
  • Have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007.
  • Were present in the U.S. on June 15 and at the time of filing their applications for deferred action.
  • Entered the country without inspection before June 15 or their lawful immigration status expired as of June 15.

Be in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, obtained a GED certificate or possess an honorable discharge from the U.S. military.

Have not been convicted of a felony, "significant misdemeanor" or three or more other misdemeanors and "do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety."

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