scorecardresearch

Immigrants seek details on eligibility after executive order

Laura Rotolo of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke at Boston City Hall information session on Nov. 25.
Laura Rotolo of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke at Boston City Hall information session on Nov. 25.(John Blanding/Boston Globe)

CHELSEA — Once the strobe lights faded and the music hushed, immigration lawyer Ludo Gardini took center stage Sunday in the Temple of Miracles.

Holding a microphone, he fielded questions from the evangelical congregation of immigrants desperate to know if they qualify for President Obama’s executive order last month protecting them from deportation.

A woman whose daughter has a green card? Yes, he exclaimed. A father of two American children? Yes!

And another man, who returned to the United States after he was deported?

“It’s all good,” Gardini said in Portuguese, to applause, though in the third case, federal officials would not say if they agree.

Advertisement



In Massachusetts, immigrants starved for details about Obama’s executive order are flocking to information sessions in churches, community organizations, and at Boston City Hall. Some lawyers, spotting a potential bonanza, are courting clients. The executive order allows roughly 5 million illegal immigrants nationwide to apply next year for work permits and temporary legal residency, potentially the largest in US history.

But immigrant advocates are urging people to wait until the final rules are available and warned them to steer clear of notarios — people posing as legal experts who might take advantage of them.

“There’s nothing to fill out right now,” Laura Rotolo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told a handful of immigrants at an information session hosted by the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians last week. “You should not be paying an attorney to fill out any forms for you right now.”

The president’s order grants three-year reprieves from deportation mainly to parents of US citizens and legal residents who have lived here for at least five years and have clean records. The order also lifted the age limit on a 2012 program for immigrants who arrived when they were children, among other initiatives.

Advertisement



Tens of thousands of immigrants in Massachusetts could be eligible to apply, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. US officials say young immigrants are expected to be able to apply sometime in February, and parents in May.

Immigrants are anxious to apply after years of being unable to get a work permit and Social Security number, and a driver’s license in many states. But many are still unsure if they are eligible.

At Boston City Hall last week, a US-educated engineer from Morocco, here for more than 20 years, arrived at the information session smiling, with plans to apply. He left dejected, stunned to discover that he does not qualify because he has no children.

Many immigrants are also contending with outstanding deportation orders or criminal records that may, or may not, disqualify them.

And some, like the man at the Temple of Miracles in Chelsea, have been deported and returned illegally — a federal crime, though he was never charged.

Federal officials granted work permits to immigrants who had returned to the United States after having been deported under the 2012 child arrivals program, but US Citizenship and Immigration Services would not confirm this week whether the same policy will apply to their parents.

Homeland Security memos suggest that immigrants with complex cases could qualify if they aren’t serious criminals, but caution that officials will decide the applications on “a case-by-case basis.”

For this reason, the American Immigration Lawyers Association recommends that all immigrants have a lawyer review their cases because the stakes are so high. A lawyer might find that some are eligible to apply for something better than a temporary work permit, such as a green card through a family member. And a lawyer could prevent the kind of error that can wreck an application.

Advertisement



“The risks are very serious,” Gregory Z. Chen, the Washington-based association’s director of advocacy in a telephone interview. “If they don’t qualify they could be identified as a priority for immigration removal and be sent out of the country.”

Other advocates say not all immigrants will need a lawyer. The Brazilian Women’s Group in Brighton says it helped about 300 young immigrants apply for temporary residency under the 2012 program for a suggested donation of $25 each — not everybody gave — compared to more than $1,000 that some lawyers were charging.

“What we’re saying is, save money to pay immigration because you have to pay for fees and they are high,” said Heloisa Galvao, the group’s executive director. She said the nonprofit referred complex applications to pro-bono lawyers to review.

At the information sessions and on radio shows, advocates are advising immigrants to gather records for their applications, including birth certificates and passports to prove their identity, and electric bills or even Facebook check-ins to show how long they’ve lived in the United States. In Boston, city officials encouraged immigrants to report any concerns of fraud to the city.

Turnout at the sessions has varied, with a few dozen turning up at the Brazilian Women’s Group and Boston City Hall to ask lawyers questions for free.

Advertisement



Gardini, a Somerville lawyer, said he is going to immigrants instead — and reaching hundreds of people through talks he posts on YouTube.

Besides his immigration work, Gardini is also defending Sann Rodrigues , a former top promoter for TelexFree in a civil lawsuit filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal officials allege the Marlborough-based company was a $1 billion global pyramid scheme mainly targeting immigrants.

Gardini said he is not charging anyone to apply for the executive order yet, but he said immigrants should not seek legal advice at the last minute.

“Do you need a lawyer? My answer is it’s your choice,” Gardini said, after he answered questions at the Chelsea church for more than 30 minutes. “But again, are you going to risk 10 years [in America] just to save $500?”

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.