CHICAGO -- It's been my experience that any time the government announces a new immigration-related plan, there's always plenty of uncertainty and misinformation swirling around before the program goes into effect.
In the worst cases, unscrupulous immigration consultants -- often calling themselves "notarios" -- pretending to be genuine legal representatives come out of the woodwork to promise scared, confused or too-optimistic immigrants quick and easy legal status, in exchange for a hefty sum of money.
Now, on the eve of President Obama's controversial DREAM Act-like "deferred action" plan, where certain unauthorized immigrants meeting narrow criteria might be eligible for a two-year reprieve from deportation, there are even more mixed signals out there about how young immigrants can determine if they should proceed. They have to be under 31, had to have been brought to the U.S. as children, must not present a risk to national security or public safety and have no criminal records, among other requirements.
While many advocacy organizations have embraced this opportunity, the enthusiasm has consistently been tempered with pleas to beware of scammers.
In New York, concerns about immigrants being exploited were so high that in late July, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged funds for a team of immigration lawyers to work with the state's immigrant organizations to help them assist immigrants in maneuvering the process.
It was weird then that Illinois' Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez put out a video Monday outlining the basics of who qualifies for the deferred action -- inadvertently adding more confusion to an already anxiety-filled process.
In the video, the two legislators -- who have always asked their constituents to be wary of potential immigration and "notario" fraud -- warned "Dreamers" to not contact either notarios or attorneys because of stories going around about scams.
And, boy, it sure didn't take long for immigration lawyers to jump on those statements. Early Tuesday, Lory Rosenberg, a longtime immigration lawyer and judge, guest-posted "DREAMers Do Need Lawyers" on immigration attorney Mathew Kolken's "Deportation and Removal" blog, and it spread like wildfire.
By Wednesday afternoon, Durbin and Gutierrez's original video had been taken off YouTube, the politicians' websites and social media networks, and yet more confusion was added to a relief program that, until recently, had been feared a deportation trap.
"When we saw this video go out on the listservs, we thought it was really a mistake for them to say 'don't hire a lawyer or notario' and put them on the same level," Rosenberg told me. "Yes, you could probably fill the paperwork out yourself, but even in the best of circumstances, there is never a guarantee that just because you're a good person and have no legal problems in your past it's going to work out for you. I've seen too many good families broken up."
"We haven't seen the application yet, but it isn't like it's going to be a one-page app with 20 questions, it'll be a deep evaluation," Rosenberg said. "And you have to look at it holistically -- DREAMers will want to know if they'll be exposing their parents, their siblings who may not qualify. ... There are so many questions."
In her blog post Rosenberg merely voiced the same concerns of the millions of young people about to gamble on deferred action, but added chilling first-hand experience: "It would be naive to assume the deferred-action adjudication process will be wholly benevolent and forgiving, or to ignore DHS' track record in other discretionary programs, particularly given the outspoken opposition from representatives of some employees within the agency."
She told me a qualified lawyer is a good hedge against this particular pitfall. "I've been doing this for almost 35 years, and in that time, the name of the agency changed, the players have changed, but the consequences have not changed -- people can literally have their lives ruined. ...
"I just don't think DHS can be considered reliable. The people processing don't always follow what Janet Napolitano asks them to do, and at any second they could change the terms or the whole thing could be stopped."
I know this sounds harsh. But you should decide for yourself whether a witness to the complexities of the immigration system primarily has the interests of practicing attorneys at heart, or if best-case scenarios from the supporters of an administration desperate to capture Latino votes at the polls this November are more reliable.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.