A new policy granting some undocumented young immigrants temporary reprieve from deportation goes into effect Wednesday.
At the Amigos Center in Lee County, which offers legal counseling to immigrants, appointments are already booked for that afternoon, the first day U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will accept applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
"I think people are excited. We have lots of parents calling us with kids ranging in age from 9 to 30," said Christina Leddin, an immigration specialist with the agency.
According to Catholic Charities of Collier County, 500 people — including many families with young children — attended a USCIS information session in Immokalee the first weekend of August. The agency itself has around a dozen clients applying so far, and Leddin reports similar figures at each of the Amigos Center offices in Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.
The program, announced in June by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will allow eligible young immigrants younger than 31 who entered the country illegally as children, are enrolled in or finished school, and have no substantial criminal record, to live and work in the U.S. for renewable two-year terms.
The program will also mean access to benefits like driver's licenses and Social Security numbers for those who qualify.
Deferred Action fell short of comprehensive immigration reform, however.
Many immigrant rights organizations have taken President Barack Obama's administration to task for not providing a path to citizenship with the deferred action policy, but USCIS has responded that such a policy requires congressional action.
Though the new deferred action application will be available the morning of Aug. 15, Leddin said, she refrained from making appointments early in the day to study the as yet unreleased application before meeting with clients.
"We set aside days each week to just schedule this. I know there's going to be a lot of questions about it," she said.
The June announcement roughly sketched out the eligibility requirements, and since then, more details have emerged that officially address questions circulating among potential applicants.
One concern was that the government would use information provided through the Deferred Action application process to deport applications the program rejected.
USCIS has since said such cases will not be referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles deportations, with the caveat that "information may be shared with national security and law enforcement agencies, including ICE and CBP (Customs and Boarder Patrol) for purposes other than removal."
The agency states the information could be used in the identification of fraudulent claims, in the interests of national security, or during criminal investigations or prosecutions.
Roberto Valdez, 20, of Golden Gate, said he was concerned the government might use the information to possibly deport him in two years if he received deferred action.
Nevertheless, Valdez has his paperwork ready and is only waiting for the new application to be made public.
Not even the $465 fee for deferred action daunts him. Leddin said the immigrant families she works with are used to high document fees.
"I already have my savings for that. All the money I'm saving is for that," said Valdez, who helps out at a family member's business for work.
He's part of what is called a "mixed status" family: the Naples High School grad doesn't have his papers, but some of his immediate family members do.
Because of his sons' lack of legal status, Valdez's father started a small business in his native Mexico a few years ago and built a house so the boys could live and work there if they needed it.
While the rest of his family, including two younger sisters, have been living between the two countries, Valdez stayed here.
Now that he has a chance at legal status, even if it's temporary, his mother — who returned to Mexico three years ago — is in the process of getting a visa to return with his little sisters and reunite the family in their Golden Gate home.
"Life is over here," he said. "The dream is over here."
Legal Aid Service of Collier County and Ave Maria Law School have four upcoming information sessions on deferred action: Immokalee High School auditorium, Aug. 20-21, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; and Legal Aid Naples Office, Aug. 22-23, 5 to 7 p.m.
For more information, call the Legal Aid offices at 239-775-4555