Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Legal experts have a message for immigrants who want to apply for President Obama's new deportation relief programs: proceed with caution.

The president announced last week that his administration will extend deportation relief and offer work permits to up to 5 million immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa.

The applications for the new programs likely won't be released until early 2015, so it's too early to make the decision to apply, according to Robert E. Juceam, a top lawyer with Fried Frank in New York City and a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"The decision to file should be made at the time when you have the form and its terms, and you know what the specific technical requirements are," he said.

Advertisement

The president will extend deportation relief to an estimated 3.7 million parents of children with U.S. citizenship or permanent residency. Another 1.5 million could be eligible for a program aimed at people brought to the U.S. as children.

No president has offered a deportation reprieve on this scale. Yet the move is temporary; successful applicants will be granted a renewable three-year work permit, with no path to citizenship. When Obama leaves office in 2016, the next president could end the program or simply let existing permits expire.

Advertisement

Once federal immigration officials begin the application process, prospective applicants should consult a lawyer to make sure they meet eligibility requirements, since an application for deportation relief "does not provide confidentiality," according to Juceam.

"Everything that they write, admit and state is usable against them, if for some reason their application is denied," he said. "They really need to talk to someone before they file."

Advertisement

Not everyone will be able to afford a lawyer. While the exact cost of legal assistance is subject to several variables, an existing deportation relief program for young people — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — can provide some context. Advocacy groups consulted by Fusion say their members have paid between $500 and $2,000 for help applying to DACA, which has been in effect since 2012. In addition to legal expenses, applicants will also face an application fee, expected to cost $465.

Advertisement

For those who meet the qualifications, the biggest question will be whether to risk sharing their personal information with the federal government when the next president could roll back the changes, and potentially use the application data to target them for deportation. Top Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) have spoken out against Obama's actions.

Still, the rewards will outweigh the risk for many immigrants living in the shadows. Greg Chen, the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the next president — regardless of party — would have a hard time justifying the expense of a deportation program aimed at parents who have passed a criminal background check and pay taxes.

Advertisement

"It would not be a wise use of finite enforcement resources," he said. "Is any new president going to go after families who have been part of our community or who are working members of our community?"

Applications won't be available for a few months, but people interested in deportation relief can begin prepare to apply. Applicants will need to prove their residence in the United States and should collect old leases, credit card bills, wage statements and tax returns, even if they were filed using a different name or Social Security number, Juceam said. If you realize you have a gap in your employment or residential history, track down someone who would be willing to sign a statement verifying any hard-to-prove details.

Advertisement

Prospective applicants should also be wary of scammers posing as immigration lawyers. A coalition of activist groups have already launched a website, adminrelief.org, to help connect people with reputable lawyers and advocacy organizations.

The problem isn't just unscrupulous actors. Sometimes well-intentioned people want to help, but don't have the authority to offer legal advice. "You have to be really careful that non-legal volunteers don't engage in the unauthorized practice of law," said Mary Meg McCarthy, the executive director of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center. "That's one of our greatest fears right now."

Advertisement

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.