A new program that gives illegal immigrants temporary sanctuary isn’t as popular as Connecticut immigration law firms were anticipating.
The Deferred Action program gives illegal immigrants a means to apply for temporary approval to live and work in the U.S. if they arrived here as a child. But while an estimated 10,000 people in Connecticut are qualified, fewer than 1,000 have applied.
Connecticut Legal Services Inc., which primarily serves low-income residents, has offered free help to those applying for the program, but not many people have come forward, said Joanne Lewis, a CLS managing attorney.
President Obama established the Deferred Action program through an executive order in June after attempts to rewrite immigration policies via the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act fell through in Congress. An estimated 1.4 million illegal immigrants qualify nationally but only 180,000 people have applied so far and about 4,600 have been approved as of Oct. 10, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“People who do want to apply have been very excited,” Lewis said. “To them, it’s at least a step toward a brighter future, despite the fact that everyone that comes into these programs is advised that it’s a limited solution for them.”
Lewis anticipated more applicants by now, but at the same time, she said there any many reasons why Deferred Action hasn’t taken off.
First, not many people know about the program. It requires a lot of paperwork and a hefty $500 application fee. Plus, there are a lot of risks associated with an application. It doesn’t give immigrants any status or security in the country and if Obama isn’t reelected in November, the program could be discontinued or changed, Lewis said.
“It’s frustrating that something like the DREAM act wasn’t passed,” she said. “In the meantime, immigration has the discretion to remove people who are not a threat that are able to work, earn money to go to college and, through that, have useful degrees and contribute to society. They aren’t going anywhere so it seems cruel to force them underground into an underground economy.”
Laura Jasinsky of Stamford-based Jasinsky Immigration Law said she’s also disappointed by Congress’s inaction on the issue, calling Deferred Action a Band-Aid.
“It gives the government one more excuse to not address the immigration problem,” she said. “It’s a temporary reprieve for the people brave enough to do the application. … No one knows what is going to happen after the deferred action status expires at the end of two years, and second, no one knows what will happen if their deferred status application is denied.”
Jasinsky also said the current immigration policy puts employers at a disadvantage. She often handles cases with construction and landscaping companies and said many businesses are frustrated by the complexity and “outright” inability to hire immigrants who want to work in heavy-lifting, low-wage jobs that most Americans aren’t willing to fill.
At other times, Jasinsky has had small business owners come into her office saying that they’ve found out one of their key employees is an illegal immigrant. The employee will be at the crux of the business and employers won’t want to fire them, she said.
They’ll ask if they can sponsor them, saying, “He works so hard, he’s not like all the other illegals,” Jasinsky said. But there are high penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, especially if they do so knowingly.
“You can’t do anything for these people,” Jasinsky said.
If convicted of intentionally employing an illegal immigrant, an employer can face fines of up to $3,000 per employee and/or six months of imprisonment. If employers make false statements about identity documents, they may be fined or face up to five years in prison.
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