By Alia Conley / World-Herald staff writer

Immigration attorneys have been bracing for an influx of business ever since President Barack Obama announced his executive action on immigration six weeks ago.

For example, the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance in Lincoln hopes to add six positions to its four-person staff.

Lori Chesser, an immigration lawyer in Des Moines, is holding screening appointments, plans to work with the Diocese of Des Moines to spread information and foresees increased interest now that the holidays are over.

Omaha immigration lawyer Ross Pesek has hired another assistant, rented additional office space and purchased more computers and desks. He plans to host informational sessions with a church in Sioux City and an Omaha real estate agent.

Some immigration legal services providers in Nebraska and Iowa worry that what little staff they have now will be overwhelmed as immigrants seek guidance to apply for temporary deportation relief.
Others, though, are skeptical about the predicted high turnout, saying it’s too soon to tell. The federal government hasn’t outlined specific qualifications for the newly announced programs, and they said previous initiatives have not produced an overwhelming amount of work.

Obama on Nov. 20 announced his executive action on immigration, a plan to defer deportation to two groups of immigrants. He expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by including older immigrants who were brought here as children by their parents and by increasing the deferral period from two to three years.

He also created a program that would allow undocumented parents of lawful resident children to request deferred action. Both groups must have continually resided in the United States since Jan. 1, 2010, and must meet other requirements.

Nebraska is one of 24 states that have signed onto a lawsuit to challenge Obama’s executive action.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said at the time of the speech that it would release applications in about three months for the expanded DACA program and in about six months for undocumented parents of children who are legal residents.

Many lawyers are grateful to have the advance notice to ready themselves and their clients. Firms are planning informational sessions, creating fliers, warning against fraud by unqualified attorneys who demand money upfront and looking for volunteers to help spread the word in the coming months about the new programs, including in western Nebraska, where help is limited.

Kristin Fearnow, an immigration lawyer in Omaha, said she’s telling clients to collect various documents, including birth certificates from home country consulates, records from immigration or law enforcement, and papers that would prove physical presence in the United States since Jan. 1, 2010.

But Fearnow said she’s unsure how strict the government’s acceptable document list will be for that last requirement, which could determine how tricky the application could be.

“Until we get more guidance and even start presenting some of these cases, it’s kind of hard to gauge the amount of work,” she said. “The application could be two pages or 10 pages — that’s going to impact it.”
The new measures could affect nearly 4 million unauthorized immigrants, of the total 11.2 million undocumented immigrants nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center.

The numbers are hard to calculate, and they vary depending on what surveys are used, said Lissette Aliaga-Linares, a research associate at the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Of the estimated 39,000 unauthorized immigrants in Nebraska, 19,430 would be newly eligible for temporary deferral, according to Aliaga-Linares’ calculations using the American Community Survey. This is a conservative number compared with the Pew Research Center’s estimate of 25,000 eligible Nebraska immigrants, she said.

Though numbers vary, Aliaga-Linares said “it is safe to say” that the beneficiaries would be 47 percent to 57 percent of Nebraska’s illegal immigrants, the majority of those being undocumented parents

Of the 19,430 newly eligible, 7,069 would be immigrants who came illegally as children and 12,361 would be foreign-born immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens, she estimated.

With the new relief programs, immigrants are either unsure of the details, unaware of their options or uncertain about stepping out of the shadows.

Pesek has been answering questions on the initiatives at his free law clinic on Mondays. The Monday after Obama’s announcement, Pesek’s usual waiting list quadrupled, to 40 people.

But many who have called the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline didn’t know about the executive action. Since the announcement, the hotline has received 100 calls, but only about 5 percent were familiar with the new programs.

And although lawyers advise people to apply for these initiatives, many immigrants are afraid to reveal themselves to the government in case Congress doesn’t pass a new law and Obama’s executive actions expire with his presidency.

“Based on past experiences, some people are going to avoid it,” said David Weber, a law professor at Creighton University. “I think it’s worth the risk.”

The immigration hotline, created a year ago by Legal Aid of Nebraska, works with five nonprofit legal providers: Catholic Charities, Justice for Our Neighbors, Lutheran Family Services, the Women’s Center for Advancement and the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance. Those who call the hotline talk to bilingual paralegals who screen the callers, collect confidential information and distribute the clients to one of the five providers.

No other system like this exists in the United States, said Laurel Heer Dale, the director of access at Legal Aid.

“Individuals have one phone number to call,” Heer Dale said. “It’s very user friendly for a population that feels very marginalized and vulnerable.”

Max Graves, the executive director of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance, the nonprofit program in Lincoln, said the organization usually works on 600 cases per year. But he’s expecting a surge of clients within the next few months, thus the need for new hires.

“What’s going to happen is people are going to be on long waiting lists like we’ve had in the past — of six to 12 months,” Graves said. “We’re just swamped every day.”

Lincoln and Omaha firms are thinking about how to help clients in western Nebraska, where immigration lawyers are dwindling, as are other types of legal assistance.

Graves said his organization has held clinics in cities such as Hastings, Lexington and North Platte to offer services to those who can’t afford them.

Leanne Kendall said she saw more activity after the executive action in her Grand Island and Columbus offices than in the Omaha office because there are fewer immigration attorneys in western Nebraska.
She understands the difficulty for rural clients who need to drive hours to see their lawyer.
“That’s a burden,” Kendall said. “But I think people are very willing to bear that burden because this is extremely important to them.”

Fearnow, who serves as the chairwoman of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said no attorneys in the association practice in the state west of Grand Island.
“It’s a real immigration attorney desert, the western part of the state,” she said.

What Fearnow and others are telling their clients is that right now no one can apply for deportation relief and that immigrants shouldn’t trust unauthorized consultants, who scam immigrants by demanding payment now for promises that might not be fulfilled, otherwise known as notario fraud.

“We’ve already heard reports of people saying, ‘Pay us now,’ ” said Chesser, the lawyer in Des Moines. “There are people that prey on these markets in particular.”

Immigrants in smaller communities with fewer immigration attorneys should be especially wary, Fearnow said.

“It’s a dangerous situation for a lot of fraud,” she said. “It’s the perfect storm for them to fill that void.”
Interest has been growing in the immigration law field for five years, said Weber, the law professor at Creighton. Yet he doesn’t expect a jump in hires, based on the last big immigration policy change. When the child deferred action program started in 2012, the hiring stayed steady, he said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a crush of applications,” Weber said. “I think work will pick up in a healthy way, but not in a completely overwhelmed way.”

Tasha Everman, the University of Nebraska College of Law assistant dean and director of career services, said immigration law is a “big interest area for our students.”

A day after Obama’s speech, Everman got a call from an Omaha lawyer who wanted to post an attorney position on the college’s private online recruiting system.

“The need is going to be so great, they will be open to students straight out of law school,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to enter the field of immigration.”

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