Three weeks ago when the federal government made applications available for young undocumented immigrants wanting to get jobs and attend school in the United States without fear of being deported, there was celebration.
Since then, it has been all hard work.
Immigrant-advocacy groups, as well as immigrants seeking what the government is calling Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, are finding out that what sounded fairly simple on the surface is requiring an unprecedented statewide education effort. An estimated 25,000 Coloradans may qualify for deferred action, and this has created a widespread need for legal advising in uncharted waters and for document-gathering that is not easy for those who have been living in the shadows.
"There has been no time to celebrate when you have to set up an infrastructure to support this," said Julien Ross, executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "It's really been an all-hands-on-deck response across the state."
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival is an incremental reform done by executive order of the Obama administration after the latest attempt to pass a Dream Act failed. The Dream Act would have given citizenship opportunities to those who were brought to this country as children and who have lived clean lives in the United States.
Deferred action gives such immigrants just what it says: immigrants who can meet a list of criteria, including having a record free of serious crime and proof they have been in the United States continuously for the past five years, can apply for a waiver that allows them to get a driver's license and a work permit for two years. During that time, if they continue to meet the requirements, they will not be deported. There is no citizenship in the deal and no guarantee that the waivers will be renewed at the end of two years.
In spite of it being far short of a Dream Act, those eligible have been lining up for applications and showing up at workshops and educational sessions in droves.
A workshop in Yuma drew 125 people. In Denver, there have been upward of 600 people at some sessions. A workshop in Grand Junction on Sept. 22 is expected to bring out many hundreds.
This effort to help undocumented immigrants navigate the intricacies of deferred action has required a mobilization of groups and volunteers across Colorado. Churches, consulates, law firms, politicians and immigration groups have been working together to hold informational meetings and training for the army of volunteers needed.
The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service has been holding weekly phone conferences with immigration-law firms to answer questions. Colorado's congressional delegation has been fielding calls from those seeking help and placed links with answers on websites.
Even those who are applying for deferred action have pitched in. At a recent Denver-area meeting that drew 250 undocumented immigrants seeking advice, 65 signed up to also work as volunteers to help others.
"Fundraising efforts have also begun to help those who can't come up with the $465 cost of filing the application or, much less, the cost of an attorney. Immigration-advocacy groups are going to churches, businesses and municipalities seeking funding help," Ross said.
They are also seeking attorneys to take on the large new caseload.
About 200 Colorado attorneys are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Ross said only about 50 have said they are willing and able to take on deferred-action cases, which can be quite complicated.
Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Jennifer Smith said she has been seeing a lot of applicants in jams as they try to gather the necessary paperwork needed to complete the application.
"It's very difficult for advocates and for applicants even if they meet all the criteria," Smith said.
Applicants have to come up with proof that they have lived in the U.S. for the required time, but some have never rented a home, had a bank account or received pay stubs to prove where they have been. Smith said some are having to resort to digging up evidence such as doctor-visit receipts, documentation of participation in religious ceremonies or letters from employers who paid the undocumented immigrants under the table.
Immigration authorities have not released the number of applicants who have already gathered their documentation and submitted applications. The process of scrutinizing and approving or denying the applications is expected to take about six months.
In the meantime, immigrant advocates say the deferred-action measure has already made a difference in the lives of some young undocumented immigrants. Many are stepping forward and going public with their status for the first time, including a young woman who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
"I am already seeing a strengthening of immigrant rights as a result of this," Ross said.
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/nlofholm