WASHINGTON/NEW YORK - President Barack Obama's televised address to the nation on Thursday may prove the easiest part of his controversial plan to relax US immigration policy. Implementing it will be difficult and many people may never benefit, warn immigration lawyers.
Sources close to the administration say Obama will announce that some parents of US citizens and legal permanent residents are to be given a reprieve from deportation. Up to 5 million people could benefit from the move.
But immigration advocacy groups say they don't have sufficient resources to provide legal services to their existing clients, never mind the millions of potential new ones. Obama's proposal is not expected to provide for federal funding for attorneys to guide immigrants through the process.
"If the past is any indication, it's going to be a significant increase in people asking for legal assistance," said Karla McKanders, who runs the immigration law clinic at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville.
The new plan is expected to be similar to Obama's 2012 executive action, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that halted deportation and granted work permits to immigrants brought illegally to the country as young children.
McKanders said she and her students were already swamped because of DACA. In many parts of the United States, especially rural areas, there are either not enough private immigration lawyers or they are not affordable to most undocumented immigrants.
Only 55 per cent of the estimated 1.2 million young people eligible under DACA have applied, according to an August report by the Migration Policy Institute.
There is another problem. Immigrants who have lived illegally in the United States for many years can be afraid to sign up or lack the proper documentation to back up their claims, said Jacqueline Rishty from the Immigration Legal Services Program of Catholic Charities in Washington.
The lack of immigration lawyers also opens the door for self-described legal experts who give bad advice or even scam clients out of thousands of dollars. The American Bar Association has warned of fraudsters offering legal services in Spanish-speaking communities.
"I think this is going to be a prime opportunity for folks to be scammed," said Adolfo Hernandez who works on immigrant affairs in the Chicago mayor's office.
Formal legal advice is not always needed to process immigration applications and many people will likely file on their own, but some, especially those who lack English language or literacy skills, will need help from people with at least some legal training to fill out the paperwork.
Good legal representation can make a huge difference in some of the tougher cases, said Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a speech on Wednesday in New York.
For immigrants who can't afford to pay for legal help, cities with big immigrant populations are already gearing up to help immigrants potentially eligible under Obama's plan.
New York City, for example, is getting ready by talking to private foundations about providing fund for legal aid and outreach. The city spent $18 million over two years on subway ads and other measures to help implement DACA.
"The plan to act may come from the federal level, but ultimately the responsibility falls on cities to step up and ensure the successful implementation of the programme," said New York City's Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal.
Chicago is also planning to spread the word about legal services by sending information home with public school children.