By Elliot Spagat
San Diego — Electricity bills. Speeding tickets. Dentist records. Money-order receipts.
The search for documents is on for immigrants who may qualify for a work permit and reprieve from deportation under measures President Barack Obama announced in November. Applicants must prove they have been in the country since Jan. 1, 2010, a tall order for many accustomed to avoiding leaving a trail.
For critics, conditions are ripe for fraud.
The administration has not identified the documents it will accept, but advocates are taking guidance from a 2012 reprieve for immigrants who came to the country as children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program allows vehicle registrations, baptism records, mortgages and postmarked letters.
When helping immigrants put together applications for work permits or reprieves, Los Angeles immigration attorney Carl Shusterman sometimes uses social media postings. A Facebook photo at Disneyland might work.
“It’s not the first thing I would use, but if you’re here illegally and getting paid in cash, you may not have as good records as someone paying into Social Security,” he said. “How do you prove you were here?”
Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney, has used movie-rental receipts, veterinarian bills and customer-loyalty programs that detail purchase histories.
“You use what you got,” she said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in December that fraudulent applications potentially could “undermine the whole process,” and he promised to review safeguards. Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services, which vets applications and operates under Johnson’s watch, said it has grown its anti-fraud unit and increased “the scope and frequency” of vetting.
Some advocate a more aggressive approach.
Louis D. Crocetti Jr., who led Citizenship and Immigration Services’ anti-fraud unit until he retired in 2011, recommended more random interviews of applicants and periodic home visits for recipients of immigration benefits. He said his audits of various visa programs found double-digit fraud rates, including 33 percent for religious workers in 2005 and 13 percent for high-tech workers in 2008.
“Immigration benefits is a production-oriented agency,” Crocetti said, “that receives tremendous pressure from the public and the Hill to process applications as quickly as possible.”
The government plans to begin accepting applications by mid-February for immigrants eligible for an expanded version of Deferred Action for
Childhood Arrivals and by mid-May for parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez said the agency will hire as many as 1,000 officers to process applications. Agency officials said hires will get several weeks of training.
Attorneys say they expect children’s birth certificates will be required for parents of U.S. citizens. School transcripts, bank statements and vaccination records also will be in demand.
Irwin Diaz, a San Diego construction worker who illegally came to the country in 1990, would use paycheck stubs if he applies but said employment records are tricky for anyone who worked under an assumed Social Security number.
“Whatever everyone like me is trying to do is see if we’re eligible, see if they have any tickets they owed or things like that,” said Diaz, 31. “It’s people in the shadows.”
School administrators said Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals prepared them. The Los Angeles Unified School District received 16,000 requests for transcripts and enrollment records after the program was announced in 2012, requiring the creation of a new record-processing system and hiring. In Houston, hundreds lined up for records each day for months.
More than 700,000 people have applied for the program since 2012, with 87 percent approved, 5 percent denied and the rest pending. Applicants must go to a government office to give fingerprints, which are scanned against law enforcement databases. Those applicants typically are not interviewed.
Patrick Taurel, a legal fellow at the American Immigration Council who has advised DACA applicants, said officers often ask for additional documents.
“It’s a preponderance of evidence standard,” he said. “It has to be more likely than not that you meet all the evidence standards.”
Advocates warn that rigorously grilling applicants may dampen interest in one of Obama’s signature initiatives. An estimated 5 million people are expected to be eligible, but some may worry that admitting they are in the country illegally will expose them to deportation. Permits last three years, and it is unknown how the next president will act.
Application fees, which are $465 for DACA, may also be a deterrent.
“Who’s going to spend $500, plus expose themselves to potential backlash?” Lichter said. “It’s just not going to work. It’s going to sour people.”
Prakash Khatri, Citizenship and Immigration Services’ ombudsman from 2003 to 2008, said he does not anticipate “really extensive” questioning. He said there is little incentive to lie because getting caught would erase any prospects of permanent legal status.
Technological advances have made lying more difficult since a 1980s amnesty that widely was perceived to be tainted by document fraud.
“In 1986, we were still dealing with the first generation of computers, no Internet,” Khatri said. “Today, if you present a document and you say you lived at a certain place, there are so many records that can reveal whether or not you have stated the truth.”