This post is by OK Policy intern Amanda Marcott Thottunkal. Amanda is pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Oklahoma.

Photo by Antonio Villaraigosa used under a Creative Commons license.

Many of the immigrants known as DREAMers were brought to the US as children without correct documentation. Others crossed the border legally as children, but they now hold expired paperwork. They attended school here, and some even served in the US military. Most have never known another home, and in their hearts, they believe themselves to be U.S. citizens.

After the 2011 DREAM act (S. 952 and H.R. 1751) failed to pass through Congress, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to help these young immigrants. DACA grants a 2 year deferral from being deported, subject to renewal, to qualified immigrants lacking the legal paperwork required of lawful US residents. An estimated 1.4 million US immigrants meet the qualifications required under DACA.

In order to qualify for the DACA program, a person must meet the following criteria:

  1. Under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012
  2. Arrived in US before 16th birthday
  3. Continuously lived in US for the past 5 years
  4. Physically present in US on June 15, 2012
  5. Living here illegally or legal status expired June 15, 2012
  6. Currently in school, graduated from high school or earned a GED, or an honorable discharged US military veteran of the Army or Coast Guard
  7. Not committed a felony or significant misdemeanors

Once an applicant’s qualifications have been verified, the deferment status is decided through “discretionary determination” by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Almost 180,000 applications have been accepted nationwide under DACA since August 15th. So far, 4,591 applicants have been approved. No case has yet been denied. 

Currently, state level data is not available; however, we can estimate how many immigrants in Oklahoma might be eligible for DACA. Oklahoma has a total immigrant population of 138,450, or 5 percent of a population of over 3.7 million. Of that 5 percent, 6,230 immigrants (ages of 15 – 30), are eligible for deferred action immediately, while another 2,950 (ages 5-14), are children who will likely be eligible in the future.

According to Chris Bell, an immigration attorney and program manager with the YWCA Tulsa Immigrant and Refugee Program, DACA applicants are processed more quickly than other types of immigration candidates – in only 6-8 weeks. Two forms are required, Form I-821D, and a work authorization application, Form I-765.  A supplemental worksheet, Form I-765 Worksheet, is also required to prove economic necessity. After the forms have been submitted, a biometrics appointment is scheduled and then candidates simply wait for USCIS’ answer.  Her office has processed 40 applications, and their first approval was granted on November 8.  Bell said she is aware of three other cases in Oklahoma that have been approved.

Contrary to popular belief, DACA is not amnesty. The program does not grant legal status or a pathway to citizenship; rather, it simply defers or postpones any deportation proceedings that might take place. It also grants the DACA immigrant the legal right to work or attend school.

DACA is not without problems. It’s expensive. The total cost to apply for deferment is $465, which covers the I-765 work authorization form and the biometrics appointment. This does not include any additional fees like passport photos or attorney’s fees. Bell explained that “while the YWCA only charges $350, most private attorney’s bill $800 – $1500 for legal services”

Bell also warned of “notarios” who have set up shop all over Oklahoma, especially in urban areas. “In Mexico, lawyers are called notarios. However, many people are setting up shop, claiming to be notarios and to provide immigration services, but they are not licensed attorneys and often scam their clients.” Bell recommends that DACA eligible immigrants only work with well-known nonprofits such as the YWCA or Catholic Charities.

Another problem with DACA is exactly how individual states will perceive those with deferred status. For example, will states give them in-state college tuition rates or provide governmental services?  Arizona has already announced that DACA residents will be ineligible to receive a driver’s license. Finally, there are concerns about the status of DACA immigrants after the initial two year deferment. Will their status be renewed indefinitely? Bell warns all of her clients that DACA, as it stands now, is “just a deferred action to deportation.”

One of Bell’s clients, a 22 year old Hispanic DACA eligible candidate, is eagerly awaiting his biometrics appointment later this month. “Everything was very fast,” he said. “I think everyone in my situation should apply. I want to attend school and study the design of air conditioners.”

Bell describes most of her clients as “very hopeful, eager to work and be of legal status.” They just want a shot at the American Dream.