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Minneapolis social worker Daniel Perez learned a lot at an international conference on fetal alcohol syndrome last year.

But the trip to Vancouver also cleared the way for what had seemed like an improbable dream since Perez crossed the Mexican border at age 15 — applying for legal status.

“It’s the first time in forever that I’ve felt really free,” he said.

Perez tapped a lesser-known benefit of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. For immigrants brought to the country as children, the 2012 program offers a temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit. But for some married to U.S. citizens, government-approved travel abroad can “cure” their illegal entry and allow them to seek a green card, the document that puts them in line for citizenship.

Critics have charged the administration with quietly opening a back door to legal status for immigrants. Both critics and immigrant advocates say the green card option raises the stakes in a legal battle over Obama’s deportation reprieve programs, slated to go before the U.S. Supreme Court next month.

Immigrants without legal status who marry U.S. citizens are technically able to apply for legal status, but for most the process is forbiddingly complicated and likely to rack up costly attorney fees. Generally, they have to travel to their home country and apply at a U.S. consulate. But the departure triggers a decadelong bar from the United States, a penalty for entering the country illegally.

They can ask the government for a pardon, but only if they can prove the consulate trip would cause their spouse “extreme hardship,” a high bar to clear. And that still leaves the uncertain trip to a consulate, where applicants sometimes face lengthy waits.

For Perez and his wife, Kendra, that route was a no-go after they married in 2014. But because he had qualified for DACA, the family had another option. The government could grant him “advance parole,” permission to re-enter the country for people who have pending immigration applications. Following a groundbreaking 2012 court decision in a non-DACA advance parole case, the return trip would override his previous entry, allowing Kendra to sponsor him here.

To get advance parole, a DACA recipient must have an educational, professional or humanitarian reason to travel, such as visiting an ailing family member. In an informal survey of local colleagues, Minneapolis attorney Paula Schwartzbauer found they’ve had good luck applying for advance parole for DACA clients.

“They don’t need to have a dying relative,” said Schwartzbauer, who has worked with a half-dozen DACA clients on their green card applications.

A University of Minnesota graduate who now works as a school social worker, Perez was nervous on his way back from the Canada conference. He knew even with parole, airport immigration agents could choose not to let him back into the country. At Vancouver International Airport, he waited in a windowless room for a nerve-racking hour to talk with an agent. But the interview went smoothly, and Perez got his green card later last year.

“Now, no one can stop me from coming back home,” he said.

Only a few apply

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, said it cannot readily provide the number of DACA recipients who have applied and received advance parole. But in data the agency compiled for Congress last spring, 6,400 had applied for parole nationwide, out of more than 522,000 DACA recipients at the time. Almost 90 percent of applications were approved, but the government could not say how many went on to apply for a green card.

Advocates believe only a tiny fraction of the nearly 6,000 Minnesota DACA recipients have applied. Doing that takes a “magical alignment of the stars,” says John Keller, executive director of St. Paul’s nonprofit Immigrant Law Center: a U.S. citizen spouse, no significant criminal history and a reason to travel abroad.

Some who could qualify worry the approach is risky, despite a 2014 government memo urging border officials to honor advance parole. Besides, many don’t know about this option. Perez, a leader with the undocumented student advocacy group Navigate, says he meets many young people who are incredulous about his experience. Schwartzbauer still gets e-mails from colleagues asking, “Is this really possible?”

Cynthia Salazar found out about the option when she interviewed for a legal assistant job in Schwartzbauer’s office this winter. Salazar, a U.S. citizen, and her husband of six years, Abimael Martinez, worried a teenage misdemeanor conviction might haunt him during a consular interview in Mexico, stranding him south of the border.

But the couple also worry that the next president can abolish DACA, which would jeopardize his job as an AutoZone sales manager. Martinez is now applying for advance parole and planning a trip with the couple’s two U.S. citizen children to visit an ailing grandmother in Mexico.

“DACA opened up a door for us to do this in a safer way,” said Salazar.

‘A sneaky attempt’

This option for DACA recipients has also drawn criticism. Last year, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, sent a letter to the Obama administration demanding that it stop granting advance parole to DACA recipients. Invoking Obama’s 2012 Rose Garden vow that the program would not offer permanent legal status, Goodlatte charged the president with making a “sneaky attempt to place potentially hundreds of thousands of unlawful immigrants on a path to citizenship.”

Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, which advocates for curtailing immigration, says the administration intentionally loosened the advance parole rules since it created DACA, allowing recipients to travel for reasons barely more pressing than a family vacation. This step sets a troubling precedent, she says: The White House doesn’t have the authority to devise ways to grant permanent residence without a congressional blessing.

“In our view, this was always a major concern in opposing DACA,” Jenks said.

A USCIS official stressed DACA and advance parole have not created a new path to citizenship.

Both advocates and critics are looking to this spring’s Supreme Court hearing over Obama’s new deportation reprieve program, which would grant work permits to an estimated 4 million parents of U.S. citizen children. If the court green-lights that program, recipients with adult children or U.S. citizen spouses might be able to pursue green cards as well.

Meanwhile, Perez and his wife are planning his first trip to Mexico since his family left in 2002. They will see his grandparents and a brother deported last year after a run-in with police. He plans to apply for citizenship when he becomes eligible in 2½ years.

“Those years of being undocumented seem so far away already,” he said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781

WHO IS ELIGIBLE?

DACA is open to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who:

Came to the U.S. before the age of 16

Were under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012

Have lived here continuously since 2007

Are in school or have a high school diploma or GED, or served in the U.S. military

Have not committed a felony, three or more mis-demeanors, or one “significant misdemeanor,” which includes domestic violence and DWI