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Bay Area Immigrants Warned Of Scams As Deferred Deportation Begins

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Immigration activists gather in front of the White House to celebrate the Obama Administration's announcement about deportation of illegal immigrants June 15, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama said the administration will stop deporting undocumented immigrants who had come to the U.S. when they were at a young age. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Immigration activists gather in front of the White House to celebrate the Obama Administration’s announcement about deportation of illegal immigrants June 15, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama said the administration will stop deporting undocumented immigrants who had come to the U.S. when they were at a young age. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Immigrants and advocates in San Francisco celebrated Wednesday’s start of the federal government’s new deferred deportation policy, but at the same time urged young people applying for the program to make sure they get good legal advice.

“We’re all focused on making sure eligible young people can apply and have quality assistance,” said Lorena Melgarejo, the director of community organizing at the Central American Resource Center, known as CARECEN.

The center is part of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, or SFILEN, a consortium of 13 nonprofit groups dedicated to serving low-income immigrants.

At a noontime community gathering at Parque Ninos Unidos in the Mission District, Melgarejo urged people interested in deferment to take advantage of free and low-cost workshops, clinics and legal services offered by CARECEN and similar groups.

“The problem we have seen in the past is that a lot of opportunistic lawyers may take advantage of the situation and end up charging a lot of money for services that people can get for free or low cost,” Melgarejo explained after the gathering.

Wednesday is the first day that undocumented young immigrants can apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for deferment of deportation under the program announced by President Barack Obama in June.

The program is an executive action in which the Obama Administration will exercise prosecutorial discretion to hold off on deportation proceedings for undocumented young people who came to the United States as children and who do not pose a danger to society.

On June 15, Mr. Obama described the policy as a “temporary stopgap measure” that could be implemented until Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform.

Participants must have come to the United States before the age of 16, have lived continuously in the country for at least five years and be below the age of 31. They must be high school students or graduates or veterans and have no record of serious crimes.

There is an application fee of $465. The deferral of deportation can be renewed in the future and participants may be eligible for apply for work permits.

Another gathering, attended by religious and community leaders, was held at Grace Cathedral and was sponsored by the San Francisco Organizing Project.

Emmanuelle Leal, the lead community organizer for SFOP, said a purpose of the meeting was to draw attention to the need for broader immigration reforms.

“We’re glad that this has happened, but we’re still urging that we should do all we can to press for a comprehensive immigration law,” he said.

The Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center estimates that about 937,000 undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 30 are currently eligible for the program nationwide. It says another 426,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 could become eligible in the future if the program is continued.

There are about 65,000 young people and children in the Bay Area in those two categories, according to the center.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a statement warning of potential scams targeting young immigrants seeking help with deferment from lawyers and consultants.

“While the California Attorney General’s Office has not yet received any citizen complaints of scams directly related to this new program, immigrants are often the target of consumer scams and should be vigilant in seeking assistance,” Harris said.

She advised those seeking help to make sure that people who say they are lawyers are licensed by the State Bar and that immigration consultants are registered with the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Immigration consultants are not allowed to give legal advice and can help only with non-legal matters such as translation, Harris noted. She advised requiring a signed, written contract with a consultant.

The Asian Law Caucus, which is a member of SFILEN, suggested, “Individuals should only seek the assistance of trusted and knowledgeable immigration attorneys and community based organizations.”

More information about deportation deferment can be found at U.S. Customs and Immigration Services’ website at http://www.uscis.gov.

SFILEN has a list of deferred-deportation legal clinics offered by five nonprofit groups, including CARECEN and the Asian Law Caucus, at http://www.sfimmigrantnetwork.org/in_the_news/.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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