Undocumented immigrants think about what an executive order might mean
Some are reaching out to attorneys for direction
Most lawyers advise for them to wait until something becomes official
After more than 14 years living in the United States, – 10 of those without legal status – a Colombian immigrant living in Atlanta prepared for a move back to his home country.
Back in Colombia, his family needs him. His brother is in a coma after an accident, his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, his mother with Alzheimer’s.
But now he is having second thoughts. He is delaying his trip because of the possibility that President Barack Obama will take executive action on immigration.
Hopes have been raised and dashed before for immigrants looking to work legally, but with the midterm elections over, many signs point to Obama issuing an executive order. For those who are in the country illegally and their advocates, the news is already prompting questions about who may qualify and what steps to take.
Immigration attorneys are getting inquiries from potential clients, and immigrants are thinking strategically about what to do if changes are announced.
The substance of any executive action is unknown, but administration officials say those who stand to benefit are undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants who were brought over as children. Sources also say the plan would strengthen efforts to deport criminals who are undocumented and measures to bolster border security.
The Colombian immigrant, who requested anonymity because he fears risking his employment due to his immigration status, said he altered his plans to return to South America because he wants to be present in the United States when the executive order is announced, if it is at all.
In the past, reforms that allowed undocumented immigrants a path to regularize their status have included a requirement that they be in the country when the action takes effect.
It’s unknown if this will be a requirement for any executive order that Obama may sign, but the Colombian immigrant is not taking any chances.
“My life is here (in the United States),” he said. “My dream would be to go to Colombia, get my family settled, and then come back.”
Initially, he feared that if he went to visit his parents in Colombia, he would not be able to find a way to return.
Some immigrants may already be altering plans, but immigration lawyers say that it is too early to lawyer up.
“There has been a lot of talk over the years of immigration reform, and until we see something play out, it is better right now to wait because we don’t know what will come out,” said Monica Modi Khant, director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network.
Until it is known what an executive order will include, it is premature to give legal advice, she said.
“It is best to wait and see what will transpire,” she said.
At Casa de Proyecto Libertad, an community organization that provides legal aid to immigrants, the phone calls from people asking “What next?” have already been coming in, said Rogelio Nuñez, the group’s director.
Despite being let down in the past, those who might benefit from immigration reform are resilient and hopeful, he said.
At this point, Nuñez said, the only advice they are given is to save some money and gather all their identification documents, two things that will likely be needed to apply for relief.
He encourages callers to save any receipts or paperwork that they can use later to prove that they have been living in the United States already.
He also reminds immigrants that nothing has changed yet.
This is important, because the opportunities for scammers also rises, he said. Immigration consults known as “notarios” or unscrupulous lawyers, have been known to charge immigrants hundreds of dollars to be placed on “waiting lists” for any new program.
Tracie Klinke, an immigration attorney in Georgia, said she has had clients tell her about such scams.
“That’s really taking advantage of a vulnerable population, and taking advantage of someone’s hopes,” she said.
Now is the time, she tells potential clients, to do research on attorneys they might want to hire, but to wait until something is official.
“The reputable attorneys are telling people simply to wait,” she said. “Nothing is official. We have to wait until we hear it from the President’s mouth.”
Obama already took action on immigration once, in 2012, with a program that delayed deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and met some other criteria.
Known as the deferred action program, or DACA, it could be expanded in a new executive order, sources told CNN.
Osbeli Gonzalez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, is among those who applied for DACA, but nearly half a year has passed and he has not been accepted into the program.
For many years, he worked instead of going to school, something he says damaged his eligibility for DACA. He has re-enrolled in classes in hopes to become eligible, but hopes that any action Obama takes will expedite the process.
“I have hope, because no matter what, I can use any help I can get,” he said.
His goal, he said, is to be allowed to work legally in the United States.