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Next Steps for Undocumented Immigrants in Wisconsin

LaToya Dennis

Many undocumented people in Wisconsin may be wondering what steps to take now that President Obama has changed some rules on immigration.

The executive order he issued last week lifts the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants. They include adults who have been here illegally, but whose children are lawful residents, as well as more young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents.

Barbara Graham works with undocumented people as an attorney with Catholic Charities. She advises immigrants to be thoughtful and do research before moving forward. Graham says there was confusion and panic in 2012 when President Obama initially deferred deportation for young immigrants.

“People had the sense that you had to apply now. I had families that sold their vehicles. They hired completely unscrupulous people to get things as fast as they could. The rumor mill had more credibility than the reality mill. People were applying for things that didn’t exist. They were using forms that didn’t exist. It was terrible,” Graham says. “What everybody needs to do right now is just calm down. They’re not taking applications on anything until February. So you have time to sit, catch your breath and go lawyer shopping. Talk to people. See what pricing is going to be like. See who will take good care of you. But you don’t have to approach this in any kind of panic mode.”

She says hiring legal help is especially important for immigrants who’ve been involved in deportation proceedings in the past, or have criminal backgrounds.

Graham says her organization charges for working on immigration cases but does not turn people away if they can’t pay. She says unfortunately, there are very few non-profits in the state that do this kind of work. And, undocumented immigrants are generally not eligible for federal assistance for legal services.

Graham says people who eventually complete the process and qualify, can apply for work permits, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. They’ll also start paying taxes.

Registration won’t start until February, so she suggests people prepare now by rounding up documents to prove how long they’ve been in the U.S., and finding competent tax help.

“There’s this misconception that the person who gets you the biggest refund is the best preparer. But I have a client now who owes $19,000 in back taxes because the tax preparer wasn’t competent and told her that both she and her husband could be 'head of household,' which is crazy. You can only have one 'head of household,'" Graham says.

She says to prove length of residence, government or business documents are preferred, such as phone bills, medical records, bank accounts or mortgage receipts.

Graham says many undocumented people here are anxious to start the process, but others are fearful it could put them at greater risk.

“No question, people are afraid. Once you send in an application to immigration, they will take a digital scan of your fingerprints. They will take a digital scan of your face. They will measure the distance between your pupils. Once they have that information, they have it for all time,” Graham says. “And I think people are worried about, what will happen once President Obama’s term is over? (Will the next president) end the program? Do they not end the program? Will they still be able to get work authorization documents, or have they simply outed themselves to the immigration service that they’re here?”     

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