DREAM Act-lite: 7 in 100 eligible illegal immigrants apply, so far

Some 82,000 young illegal immigrants, or almost 7 percent of those thought to be eligible, sought a deportation reprieve in the month since the government began accepting applications under the new Obama policy.

Gregory Bull/AP
Two immigrants sort through some of the documents they need to apply for a work permit in San Diego, in August. They are among those hoping for the right to work legally in America without being deported. The Obama Administration’s “Dream Act," or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants.

When the Department of Homeland Security opened applications in mid-August for undocumented immigrants who are students and soldiers to get a reprieve from deportation, the big question was how many would step out of the shadows and into the applicant pool.

Now, the numbers are in for the program's first month. As of Sept. 13, at least 82,000 illegal immigrants have filed applications to take the government up on its offer, a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the DHS announced Friday. That’s almost 7 percent of the 1.2 million illegal immigrants whom advocacy groups estimate are currently eligible for the program.

“All in all, we’re very satisfied,” not only with the number of applicants but “also with the way the program is being implemented,” says Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

While some advocates may have expected “hundreds of thousands” of applications out of the gate, Ms. Hincapie says that was never a realistic proposition because of the complexity of the application, concerns from illegal immigrants about making themselves known to the government, and questions about how a potential President Mitt Romney would handle the program.

Another 500,000 or so individuals will meet eligibility requirements in the future, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), for a total of about 1.7 million potential applicants.

Of the 82,000 people to apply, 63,000 have appointments scheduled for the recording of biometric data. Twenty-nine cases have already been resolved, with 1,660 more cases ready for final review, according to DHS.

The rapidity with which DHS has handled some applications left long-time critic Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas wondering whether the applicants were thoroughly vetted. Moreover, Representative Smith said in a statement Wednesday, the speed with which DACA applicants moved through the system raised his eyebrows about whether their cases received preference over other immigrants.

“While it took the administration less than three weeks to process several amnesty applications, it can take several months for some legal immigration benefit applications to be approved. It’s appalling the administration has diverted resources from approving applications for those who have played by the rules to illegal immigrants,” said Smith.  

Immigrant advocates and analysts question the extent to which fraud will be a problem.

Successful applicants win a deferral from deportation for two years, but after that they must periodically reapply to reauthorize their deferrals, Doris Meissner, MPI senior fellow and former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), told the Monitor last month. While rooting out fraud is always important, Ms. Meissner said, lying to the government during the application process is cause for deportation, and fraud uncovered even after someone is sheltered under DACA means illegal immigrants applying fraudulently “will have put themselves into serious jeopardy.” 

To qualify for the DACA program, applicants must be under age 31, have lived in the US for five or more years consecutively, served in the military or be pursuing an education or have graduated from high school, have come to America before age 16, and have no significant criminal record. Applicants must pay a $465 fee and submit to a biometric scan and background investigation.

If successful, applicants gain a two-year deferral from deportation proceedings and the opportunity to apply for a work permit, but no path to US citizenship. If unsuccessful, there is no appeals process.

The program is a sort of miniature version of the DREAM Act, legislation that would put young people in a similar situation to those eligible for DACA on a path to US citizenship. With the DREAM Act (and broader immigration reform) stalled in Congress, President Obama announced the DACA policy on June 15 as a sort of stop-gap measure to help stop deportation of young illegal immigrants brought to the US while minors.

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