CHELSEA — In community centers across the region, young immigrants and their parents gathered to commemorate an historic event: The first day young people living illegally in the United States can apply for a work permit and a reprieve from the threat of deportation.
But the gatherings also had a more nuts-and-bolts objective: to provide much-needed information on how to apply for the federal deferred action program.
At the Roca center in Chelsea, more than 200 people crowded into a gymnasium in the late afternoon for a clinic organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition on how to complete the application. Young people and their parents craned their necks to make sense of a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the requirements of the program, as toddlers wailed and speakers shouted to be heard above the din.
Applicants must have entered the country before they turned 16 and must have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent or be currently enrolled in high school, to qualify. That part was clear, but people had other questions.
Does a Spanish-language high school equivalency program meet the requirement of a high-school diploma, or does the program have to be English-language? If an applicant was using a false Social Security number, should it be included on the form? If a young person was charged with a misdemeanor but the case was dropped, will it count against him?
Natalia De Silva, 20, came to the Chelsea meeting with a solid foundation on the requirements of the federal program. When President Obama announced it two months ago, she started scouring the websites of the Department of Homeland Security and US Citizenship and Immigration Services for information.
Still, she had questions Wednesday about which records she needs to provide — report cards? exam scores? — to properly document her time as a student in the United States.
“You kind of have to be an expert, to know every single thing in case something goes wrong,” De Silva said.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching worldwide migration patterns, estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 people in Massachusetts are eligible for deferred action, which can be renewed every two years.
But the swiftness with which this program has been rolled out has raised a need for more information sessions and clinics to inform eligible people on how to submit an application.
Earlier Wednesday, about 20 members of the Student Immigrant Movement gathered on Friend Street in Boston to share tips and pointers on filling out the application.
Isabel Vargas, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 8 years old, told others at the meeting, held in the offices of Greater Boston Legal Services, that the opportunity to apply would transform her future.
“When I apply for a job, I don’t have to be all nervous about what Social Security number I’m going to give,” Vargas, 20, said.
Some speakers also took time to warn of potential pitfalls in the application process. They advised people to be wary of individuals feigning legal expertise, known as notarios, who charge large sums with promises of immediate results.
Instead, they suggested that applicants have their forms and documents reviewed at free clinics provided by the Student Immigrant Movement and Greater Boston Legal Services. Those clinics are set to start Sept. 1, and will take place in East Boston, Lynn, Lawrence, and New Bedford.
“Don’t rush it,” said Conrado Santos, a member of the Student Immigrant Movement. “It’s better to send something good and complete. You don’t need to rush.”
Daniela Bravo, 25, said she had already downloaded a deferred action form off the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website and printed it out, but she does not plan to submit her application until it has been reviewed at a Student Immigrant Movement clinic and she is certain it has no mistakes or omissions.
“You don’t want to mess it up,” Bravo said. “You don’t want to ruin your chance.”
While they were apprehensive about filling out the applications, the attendees were united in their elation that they have a chance to live and work here without worrying about deportation.
“It’s a chance for young aspiring immigrants to come out of the shadows, to openly live out your dreams,” said the Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, director of the city’s Office of New Bostonians.
Still, some expressed disappointment that only people younger than 31 are eligible.
“I feel sad, because there are a lot more people: my mom, my dad, my uncles and cousins,” said Aly Lopez, 20, of Somerville. “It’s good that now we’ve got a chance . . . but there are a lot more people who deserve this opportunity.”
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