The crowd around immigration attorney Jessica Dominguez was five people deep, and each person had a question.
“I came in 2006 but got a ticket for illegal vending,” one man told her. “Do I qualify?”
“You should be OK,” Dominguez told him.
“But what if I have a DUI?” a woman interjected.
Dominguez shook her head apologetically: “No.”
Nearly one month after President Obama announced he was taking executive action to delay deportation for up to 5 million people living in the U.S. without documents, many immigrants are scrambling to find out whether they will make the cut.
The government is still working out the details of the programs, which will offer work permits and deportation deferrals for three years to many people who came to the U.S. as children, as well as many parents of U.S. citizens. Major questions, including what kinds of criminal records might disqualify an applicant, still loom.
At an event that drew thousands to the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, attorneys, nonprofit groups and representatives from the consulates of Mexico and El Salvador offered some help.
“It’s time for you to start gathering your documents and saving your money,” said Karla Navarrete, staff attorney of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which organized the event. Immigrants who apply for the programs will have to prove they have been in the country for several years and pay a fee of several hundred dollars to the government, Navarrete said, so people should start planning now.
Sunday’s event, which was connected to a three-day national conference on immigrant integration that Monday features a speech by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez, was the first part of what immigrant advocates say will be a massive public information campaign.
Transmitting the details of complex immigration policy from the halls of Washington to the streets of L.A. County, where an estimated 450,000 will now be eligible for relief, will not be easy.
“We have to be able to talk to half a million people,” said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who is stepping down from the labor group at the end of this month to focus on immigration issues full time.
One challenge, advocates say, is the proliferation of scam artists looking to take advantage of immigrants. On Sunday they warned against attorneys or notaries offering to help process applications now. Applications for the programs will not be released until next year.
Another obstacle is fear, with some immigrants unwilling to sign up for the program because they don’t want to identify themselves to the government. Obama’s action offers a stay of deportation for three years, but there is no guarantee that the next president will continue the program. Besides, 24 states have challenged the action, saying the president overstepped his powers in enacting such changes on his own.
Durazo and others say the way to protect the program is to have millions of people enroll in it.
“The more people that come forward, the harder it will be for the government to undo this,” Durazo said.
The mood at Sunday’s event was cautiously optimistic. “I’ve hired four lawyers over the years to help me fix my status,” said Ricardo Cervantes, 35, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at 9 and who is the son of a U.S. citizen and a legal permanent resident. “Maybe this time it will work.”
Another attendee, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala 10 years ago, said he was trying to figure out whether he should apply for one of the new programs or try to win citizenship through his U.S.-born wife, with whom he has two children who are U.S. citizens.
Orlando, who would not give his last name because he is afraid of being deported, said he wants to find a solution so that he can work legally but conceded he finds immigration policy complicated.
“I have no idea how this works,” he said.