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Homeland Security chief implores immigrants to 'step forward'

At L.A. event, DHS chief hands an immigrant his pen and asks her to please fill out a DAPA application

Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson on Thursday asked immigrants in Los Angeles to “step forward” and apply for President Obama’s expanded deferred action program.

At a packed event at the L.A. Central Library, Johnson touted the benefits of the program, which will grant up to 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally the chance to stay and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

He went so far as to present his own pen to one woman who raised her hand when he asked who in the room was eligible to apply.

“Ma’am, I’d like you to fill out your application with it,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s visit to Los Angeles is a part of a major public relations push as federal officials prepare to launch the first phase of the program’s expansion next week.

The government will start accepting applications Feb. 18 for the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants deportation relief and work permits to many people who came to the U.S. before they were 16.

Obama has changed the program from two years to three and has expanded the criteria so it is now available to anyone brought to the U.S. as a child, no matter their current age.

Johnson said he hopes to implement the next phase of the program, which will offer the same protections for up to 4 million parents of U.S. citizens, by May.

Applications for the program have not yet been released. That means Alejandra Velazquez, the Mexican immigrant who took home Johnson’s pen Thursday, will have to wait to use it.

Johnson and his second-in-command, Deputy Secretary Ali Mayorkas, have each toured the country in recent weeks to promote Obama's programs, with stops in immigrant-heavy states including New York, Illinois, Texas and Arizona.

Their push comes amid a brewing political battle over the agency's funding that could threaten the future of the program they are touting.

House Republicans angry about Obama's unilateral actions on immigration recently approved a budget for Homeland Security that stripped funding for the new immigration programs. Senate Democrats have blocked that bill, and Obama has vowed to veto it, leaving the agency's funding in question. The department is set to run out of money Feb. 28 -- a prospect Johnson described as unacceptable.

“It is like trying to drive across the country with no more than five gallons of gas at a time and not knowing where the next gas station is,” he said.

Johnson spoke alongside L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose east-county district is home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the country without permission, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who recently launched an initiative called #StepForwardLA that aims to help 100,000 people eligible for the expanded program to apply.

“It is important for us to get the word out that these programs are in place,” said Garcetti, who said his office is helping to organize information campaigns in public schools, parks and libraries.

For more immigration news, follow the reporter @katelinthicum

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