(Photos: Mary Reinholz)

(Photos: Mary Reinholz)

Fernando Canovas has lived in the shadow of the law for 23 years, working as a cook in Queens and never visiting a doctor’s office in part because of problems with his ID. “I don’t get sick,” said the 43-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico City on a recent late afternoon.

A black skull cap pulled down to his forehead, he sat stoically upright in the auditorium of the Academy for Peace and Justice in South Williamsburg. His wife Ana Ramos, also from Mexico City, sat next to him.

Fernando Canovas and his wife Ana Ramos.

Fernando Canovas and his wife Ana Ramos.

Other Latinos, some accompanied by their children, entered the public high school’s auditorium and began taking seats in the rows of metal folding chairs. Soon about 200 people had gathered. They were there to be briefed by Anne Pilsbury, a public interest lawyer, about President Obama’s executive actions offering nearly five million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a shot at a three-year reprieve from deportation plus authorization for work permits —  if, that is, they’ve paid taxes and can pass a criminal background check, including fingerprinting.

None of this will be a piece of cake should they apply next year at offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. But Carnovas figures that he and his wife, who have an American-born son, will qualify for one of Obama’s newly created programs: Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, otherwise known as DAPA. Why is he confident? For starters, he said, “I’ve never been arrested.”

Glenda Lisbeth Menjias, a 37-year-old undocumented Salvadorian immigrant who for 13 years has lived under the radar in New York, said in halting English that she also feels qualified for DAPA because she too is the mother of an American– nine-year-old Ramon Martinez, her only child who attends public school in Bushwick. He’s been living continuously in the U.S. since at least January 1, 2010, another requirement to apply for DAPA.

Ramon, who did most of the talking to B+B, said his father is a Puerto Rican immigrant who holds a green card and works in a candle factory in New Jersey. “My mother once worked in the candle factory and that’s where she met my father,” he said. “He still works there but couldn’t come tonight.” Both Ramon and his mother flashed radiant smiles.

Glenda Lisbeth Mejias and her son Ramon Martinez, Jr.

Glenda Lisbeth Menjias and her son Ramon Martinez, Jr.

Others in the crowd listened intently as Pilsbury, executive director of Central American Legal Assistance, a for immigrants that operates out of the basement of Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church on Hooper Street, described DAPA in Spanish.

“This is the first time they’d be applying, because up until now there was nothing for them to apply for that the law would permit,” Pilsbury told us shortly before the meeting. “This is a big deal for them.” She believes that Obama’s controversial executive actions, announced on November 20 and fiercely opposed by Republicans in Congress, are an important step towards reforming the immigration system.

But Pilsbury characterized DAPA as only a “half a loaf, because it’s not permanent.” It leaves out about six million other undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and is not a path to citizenship.

During a question and answer period, some attendees at the meeting admitted that they had brushes with the authorities, sometimes inquiring, “Will I be eligible if I was arrested at the border?”

After the meeting, Pilsbury’s colleague Brian Mulligan, who has been accredited by the U.S. Justice Department to represent clients in immigration courts in South Brooklyn and Sunset Park, said he was frequently asked, “What if I was deported and came back?” (Last week, in just such a case, a Pennsylvania judged declared Obama’s immigration action unconstitutional; that order, said by the Justice Department to have no basis, was unrelated to a federal lawsuit brought by 24 states.)

Mulligan said that applicants could still be eligible for DAPA even if they are in deportation proceedings, adding, “Every case is different.”

imm2Pilsbury, however, said that one “serious felony” — or three misdemeanors or one  “significant misdemeanor” like an arrest for DUI — would disqualify an applicant.

DAPA is modeled after an expansion of an initiative begun by Obama in 2012 called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. It’s aimed at young people who came to the U.S. before turning 16 and have been living in this country continuously for at least five years. Successful applicants for DACA under Obama’s new executive orders will also receive work permits, social security cards, other benefits, and three years of temporary relief from deportation. Applications for DACA should start in February. Applications for DAPA are expected to be open in May of 2015.

A Latino woman at the meeting said she was concerned about finding reputable agencies and lawyers who could provide help in filling out the application forms (as yet unavailable) and passing the background checks. “We don’t know where to go — maybe people will ask for money,” she said, alluding to a multitude of scam artists who prey on vulnerable immigrants.

The woman noted that Pilsbury’s agency couldn’t help with DAPA applications because “they don’t have enough people” to process them. “We’ve been told to check the website,” she said.

Pilsbury said her small agency, while handling DACA cases, can’t take on applicants for DAPA since it is already overwhelmed trying to help thousands of immigrants facing deportation and seeking political asylum who won’t be covered by Obama’s executive orders. She said that many non-governmental agencies in New York are not prepared to deal with an expected tidal wave of applicants next year when the new programs begin to be implemented.

“We want to advocate the city to understand the scale of what’s needed,” she said. “We’re talking about 300,000 [potential applicants] in New York City.”

The meeting at El Puente was held on the same date, December 8, as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s summit on immigration that drew mayors and staff from 18 cities to Gracie Mansion to plan strategies on how to collaborate on getting the federal programs up and running and to lobby Congress to pass legislation for permanent immigration reform.

In a prepared statement for B+B, Nisha Agarwal, the city’s Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, pronounced the summit a “resounding success” in terms of the ability of the cities to “coordinate, organize and share best practices.” The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs sent B+B contact numbers and agencies where applicants for deportation relief programs can find free legal assistance. (See list below.)

Anne Pilsbury.

Anne Pilsbury.

Figures for eligible applicants in New York City for Obama’s initiatives vary, but one City Hall source put the numbers at anywhere from 114,000 to 121,000 out of an estimated 850,000 undocumented immigrants in the five boroughs.

Elizabeth Plum, director of special projects at the New York Immigration Coalition, said she has heard those figures before but insists that exact numbers for undocumented immigrants at a hyperlocal level were “impossible” to determine. She also contends that what’s coming from Washington, D.C. next year is unprecedented.

“This is by far the largest immigration program in over 30 years — larger than the 1986 legalization program under Reagan,” she said in a telephone conversation. “When you think about DACA in 2012, [agencies] were swamped. This program is three times that size.” Plum also noted that Obama’s administration has deported around two million undocumented immigrants during his tenure in the Oval Office — “more than any other president of the U.S.” (Statistics released Friday indicate the rate of deportation has declined dramatically in the past three years.) She believes he stepped in with his executive actions out of concern over deportations “tearing families apart” after Congress failed to pass legislation that would overhaul immigration policies.

According to Plum, the New York Immigration Coalition will post on its website the names of member agencies that focus on immigrants facing imminent threat of deportation. “If you’re involved in immigration work, there’s no way not to be involved in administrative relief,” she said. “ Not everyone will have legal services. There will be community services. We’re trying to create and coordinate between traditional and non-traditional assistance. We expect DAPA will help the most people and it’s a big undertaking. We need to be ready because we’re in the eye of the storm.”

Plum was one of the speakers at a Town Hall on Obama’s executive actions held December 2 by the Arab American Association of New York at the Beit al Maqdis Islamic Center in Sunset Park. Co-sponsors included the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Representatives from the New York City Council were also present, among them staff from the office of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Linda Sarsouer of the Arab American Association.

Linda Sarsouer of the Arab American Association.

Linda Sarsour, a Muslim community activist and executive director of the Arab American Association, strongly encouraged about 50 prospective applicants for DAPA and DACA to start saving their money for fees along the way and to collect records like visas, passports with photos and birth certificates — “the more documents, the better” — establishing their ID and residency for five years. She said the Arab American Association would help them apply.

“The application process for this executive action is not open right now,” she said. “There is no application [form]. Anyone who tells you this is lying and pulling a scam. Do not allow any attorney or travel agency to try and get money from you to apply. Leave your telephone number and we will call and tell you when to come in and help you start the application process.”

Meanwhile, the New York City Municipal Card, a government-issued photo ID card, will launch in mid-January for all New Yorkers starting at age 14 “regardless where they come from,” said Bitta Mostofi, director of the Municipal ID Outreach Campaign of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. She told the audience that the card will be free the first year of the program and available at enrollment centers in the five boroughs, offering benefits like discounts to museums, movies and prescription drugs.

“It’s a way to make life easier for immigrants” and other people, like the homeless, Mostofi said. “The mayor wanted to create greater access. This is important when you visit a doctor or interact with law enforcement. It shows you’re a New Yorker.”

Immigration Assistance
The Mayor’s Office on Immigrant Affairs maintains referral lists for anyone who needs free legal assistance on immigration matters. Individuals can also call 311 or the hotline of the New York State Office for a list of organizations that can help them based on their zip codes in the five boroughs. Here are some organizations that will be working on DAPA/DACA applications in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.

NY State Office of New Americans (ONA) – 1-800-566-7636 – Immigration Advice & Referrals Hotline (more than 200 languages available).

Legal Aid Society – (212) 577-3456 – Immigration hotline operates Wednesdays and Fridays from 1pm to 5pm

New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) – (212) 613-6597 – Leave your contact information, and an immigration attorney or paralegal will get back to you shortly.

Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the surname of Ana Ramos.