Pedro Lopez and Beatriz Balbuena, a committed couple in their 30s, showed up early Monday night and grabbed seats in the front row of a church basement in Phoenixville. He is from Guatemala. She is from Mexico. Both are undocumented immigrants. Their son, Pedro Jr., was born here in 2009.
The evening's topic - President Obama's controversial executive action on immigration - drew about 80 people to an information session in this town of 16,500, where the immigrant support group Alianzas de Phoenixville estimates "several thousand" residents are from Latin America.
Lopez and Balbuena came to ask if he could share in the executive action protection available to the parents of U.S.-citizen children, even though he and Balbuena are not formally married.
Marjorie Arias, who works with the local organization Health Care Access and is certified by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals to give immigration advice and assistance, was on hand to answer questions. Even before the meeting began, she told Lopez that he appeared to qualify. A smile lit his face. Obama's order, he said, "gives us new hope."
After Obama's address to the nation last month, a coalition of local groups, under the banner PA is Ready!, jumped in to ensure that immigrants get the information and assistance they need to apply for administrative relief. Monday's session at Sacred Heart Church of St. Ann Parish was part of a series of meetings throughout the region, through which organizers hope to reach thousands of immigrants in the coming weeks. In addition to 30 meetings in 16 Pennsylvania cities and towns, meetings have been scheduled in the South Jersey towns of Carneys Point and Glassboro.
Many of the meetings have been or will be at churches, although libraries, multicultural centers, and hair-braiding salons are among the venues. In addition to English, the briefings are in Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, and multiple languages of Indonesia and Africa.
Under Obama's formula, about five million of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are eligible to register with authorities in exchange for conditional protection from deportation.
Most who will be eligible are the parents of children born in the United States, provided they have been continuously in America for at least five years. The president also expanded eligibility for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program he created in 2012, which allows some children who were brought illegally to the United States as children to get protection from deportation.
Combining the two categories, about 35,000 to 55,000 of Pennsylvania's estimated 170,000 undocumented immigrants could be eligible, experts say.
The PA is Ready! campaign is spearheaded by Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), which began in 1998 as an informal network of advocates for immigrants and refugees.
Nina Guzman, director of Alianzas de Phoenixville, said many of the clients she serves have expressed trepidation about coming out of the shadows.
For undocumented immigrants, "fear is always on the agenda," she said, but many have said they intend to register for the proffered relief.
Arias and Maria Sotomayor of PICC addressed the group for about 90 minutes. The executive action "is not a pathway to permanent legal residency or citizenship," said Arias. "Whoever tells you that is lying to you." She and Sotomayor warned against unscrupulous people who will hold themselves out as experts and demand money to speed up the process.
Registration for relief is expected to begin in May for parent applicants, she said, and in about 90 days for DACA-eligible children.
Arias took questions: What happens if you have a DUI? What happens after the initial three years of protection from deportation ends? Stressing that each case has to be assessed individually, she said that a serious DUI conviction probably would be enough to disqualify an applicant, and that the three-year protection could be renewed provided the executive action is not rescinded or superseded by congressional immigration reform.
Arias went through a list of documents that applicants will need as proof of eligibility: birth certificates, rent receipts, and utility bills among other records. She advised them to begin saving money for the $465-per-person application fee.
Then some began to drift away, carrying infants and holding toddlers by the hand. "At this point," said Guzman, watching them go, "they have a lot of homework to do."
BY THE NUMBERS
estimated undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania.
estimated who may become eligible for relief under Obama's announcement of executive action.
organizations participating in the PA is Ready! campaign.
briefings since Dec. 3 or scheduled through mid-January.