Taking a break from filling out her own application, Deisy Escalera escorts other undocumented immigrants to a large room at the Capitol Hill Community Center where volunteers help with paperwork that could help them avoid deportation and work in the U.S.
“I've been too busy helping other people to do my own,” said Escalera, a University of Oklahoma senior who plans to graduate in May.
On Oct. 27, about 50 undocumented immigrants received help applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a process announced by President Barack Obama this summer. The clinic was organized by DREAM Act Oklahoma's chapter in Oklahoma City and gave applicants free counsel with attorneys and experts.
This is the organization's second clinic in Oklahoma City. The first helped around 100 applicants.
“There are so many people who need help,” said Fredy Valencia with the Oklahoma City chapter. “This is a way to help people with simple applications who can't afford an attorney.”
Along with the six-page application, supporting documents including school transcripts, military records, proof of continuous residence and other records are needed.
The applicants are requesting to be considered for deferred action, a process that gives them a two-year, renewable deportation reprieve. Among other requirements, they must have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16. They must have been younger than 31 as of June 15, be enrolled in school, graduated or served in the military and have a clean criminal record. The applications are reviewed by federal authorities on a case-by-case basis.
Though approximations vary, the Immigration Policy Center estimates about 6,200 immigrants in Oklahoma could be eligible for the program. Another 3,000 could benefit in the future if the initiative remains in place.
Nationally, about 1.4 million could be eligible for the program, with California, Texas, Florida and New York having the highest number of potential beneficiaries.
The most recent data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service shows about 180,000 have applied so far. About 4,600 have been approved.
If approved, immigrants are eligible for renewable work permits. It does not give them legal status or a path to citizenship.
“This allows these kids to work and help their families,” Valencia said.
Individuals from the first clinic in August are just now starting to get approved and get their work permits, he said.
Bringing yourself out of the shadows can be intimidating,” Tulsa attorney Rebekah Guthrie said. “But it's worth it.”
Guthrie, a volunteer at the clinic, said she helps out because many immigrants are desperate to apply and don't have the money to pay an attorney. The fee to request consideration is $465.
“They really just want the opportunity to be here and to work,” she said.
Oklahoma City attorney Imelda Maynard, also a clinic volunteer, said she's heard of instances where so-called “notarios” and others without credentials claim they can help individuals with their application paperwork for a fee. Often, they do more harm than good.
“Sometimes the person has no idea any fraud is going on,” said Maynard. “Some may actually be well-meaning, but the wrong kind of help can hurt.”
Getting applications correct and complete with the right supporting documents is critical. Mistakes and errors can lead to application denials with no opportunity to appeal.
Valencia said his group has plans to set up mobile units that can travel across the state to help with applications.
“Time and resources are our only constraint,” he said