Thanks to a directive issued by President Obama last summer, thousands of young, undocumented immigrants who may have been living in the shadows can now come out. And DWT partner Chris Helm has been working to assist them.
The new policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows children and young adults who arrived in this country before they were 16 (and under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012) to apply for work authorization, and to have any deportation action deferred.
Since applications were first made available on Aug. 15, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the vast majority of them from Mexico, have sought DACA. Thanks to outreach work by many organizations, these young people have not had to undertake the process alone.
Helm, who is co-chair of the DACA Committee for the Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, helped coordinate clinics this fall at more than a dozen locations around the state. He worked in partnership with One America and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
“We provided general information as well as specific assistance and screening,” says Helm, who personally took part in three of the clinics. He has also taken on several DACA clients at a discounted rate.
While the application process is not particularly onerous by immigration standards, it is rigorous. To successfully apply, immigrants must be able to document that they came to the U.S. before they were 16 and are now under 31, that they have been in the U.S. continuously for the last five years, and that they were here on June 15 when Obama first announced the program. They also have to prove that they are enrolled in school, have graduated or earned a GED, and/or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. armed forces.
Felons, or those convicted of “a significant misdemeanor,” do not qualify. Helm adds that it’s particularly important for immigrants who’ve had “any encounters with law enforcement, to have their application be reviewed by a lawyer.”
At the clinics he attended, Helm says, “the kids were from all spectrums of life. Some were attending very competitive prep schools.”
In most states, Helm says, “undocumented kids can go through high school without problems.” But being undocumented becomes more of an obstacle when it comes to college, applying for scholarships, and getting proper jobs. For those young people, DACA will provide relief from the fear of deportation and freedom to work legally—though only for an initial period of two years.
DACA was created as a kind of stopgap in lieu of the DREAM Act, proposed legislation supported by President Obama that would provide permanent residency to young undocumented people, and comprehensive immigration reform, which would provide legal status for a much broader population of undocumented immigrants. Such legislation has failed to pass both houses of Congress.
“There are 12 million undocumented foreign workers in this country,” says Helm, “and there is substantial political opposition to granting them legal status—but less so for their children who were brought here without any say in the matter.”
In recent years, Helm has been honored by several organizations for his extensive pro bono work on behalf of immigrants. “It’s really satisfying,” he says, “to be able to provide a voice for, and assist, people who are somewhat powerless to affect their situation and typically don’t have money to hire a good lawyer.”