LOS ANGELES — In small-town community centers, schools, churches and a vast city convention center, immigrant advocates are spreading the word about President Barack Obama’s plan to give millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally a temporary reprieve.
The November announcement promising work permits and protection from deportation made a splash, but lawyers say the events are crucial to dispel rumors about eligibility, ward off fraud, and help immigrants determine what they might need to apply.
In Los Angeles, advocates are hosting an information session for as many as 10,000 people at the city’s convention center Sunday.
“After this big forum, we’re going to have daily orientations. That is what we have to do in order to deal with the demand,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Immigrants are eager to see if they qualify for Obama’s executive actions to spare nearly 5 million people from deportation and to refocus enforcement efforts on criminals.
Twenty states have filed a lawsuit to try to block the measure, which aims to benefit immigrants who have been in the country illegally for more than five years and have children who are American citizens or green card holders, along with some immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
For immigrant advocates, the challenge is reaching prospective applicants in diverse communities that speak multiple languages and often know little about the United States’ Byzantine immigration laws. While some immigrants find strength in numbers, others shy away from public meetings because of fear or stigma over their immigration status.
At recent workshops and on telephone hotlines, immigrants have questioned advocates about who will qualify and what documents they will need. Many want to know how they can prove their identity after living under the radar for so long, and some worry they might face trouble for having worked under a false Social Security number, Salas said.
Workshops for immigrants already have been held at a high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, a church in Goshen, Indiana, and an Islamic Center in New York City. Eben Cathey, a spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said his organization has an event almost every night.
“Every time we do an information session, it is full,” he said.
At a recent forum at a San Diego community center, an immigration attorney fielded questions for two hours, and many hands were still raised when time ran out.
Anahi Maldonado, a 32-year-old mother of two American-born children, said she attended to verify that she and her husband would qualify for the program. She’s been living in the U.S. for 14 years after crossing the border from Mexico and wanted to ensure she didn’t need a visa to apply.
“The thing is, sometimes someone has questions that the president is not going to answer,” said Maldonado, adding that she also wondered if she would need a good conduct letter from police, and how she could get one since she didn’t have valid immigration papers.
Immigrant advocates are doling out whatever information they have, much of it based on their experiences with a 2012 program to assist U.S.-educated immigrant children. But there is still much that is unknown, and no application form yet.
Advocates are warning immigrants not to pay anyone to get in line to apply and to avoid being duped into filling out fake applications.
Many are also planning one-on-one consultations to help immigrants determine if they’re eligible and if that’s their best shot at immigration relief, since sometimes people may qualify for a visa or other benefits.
“We’re definitely telling people they need to make sure they get screened,” said Jorge Baron, Executive Director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is holding an event for as many as 650 people in Seattle. “We don’t want people to go and apply on their own.”
Some groups are already starting individual screenings.
Michelle Saucedo, a legal advocate for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said Asian immigrants are more likely to turn out for one-on-one consultations than group sessions because some feel a sense of shame over their immigration status. When advocates advertised large workshops about the 2012 program in the Chinese community, only one or two people would show up, she said.
Saucedo said she expects hundreds of people to seek assistance at an event on Dec. 13. “It is very private and people often call and say, ‘Can I just see you in your office one-on-one,’” she said. “We have learned along the way.”
By Amy Taxin. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Manuel Valdes in Seattle, Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, and Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico