How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A deferred action reality check: How is the process working, who is hesitating, and why?

Deferred Action

Josie Huang/KPCC

Young people attend a recent orientation for hopeful deferred action applicants in Los Angeles.

This week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that since the application process started Aug. 15, some 72,000 undocumented young people have filed for temporary legal status via deferred action

The program, introduced by the Obama administration in June, provides a temporary reprieve from deportation - but no path to citizenship - for those who meet certain criteria, including that they arrived in the United States as minors under 16, have a clean record, have lived here five consecutive years and were no older than 30 as of June 15.

The first of the responses from USCIS to applicants have reportedly begun tricking out this week; so far, though, local immigrant advocates say no applicants they have worked with directly have received the news.

Other are still in the paperwork-gathering process, or waiting to apply. And some have hesitated. Although 72,000 is a substantial number of applications, some observers have noted it's relatively low given estimates that close to 2 million people could potentially qualify.

What gives? Three stakeholders - an immigration attorney, an immigrant advocate, and a potential beneficiary and youth activist - provide their assessments below.

The potential beneficiary: Erick Huerta, 28, who arrived in the U.S. with his family at age 7, holds a community college journalism degree and works with undocumented youth.

M-A: Does this number reflect the demand that was expected, or is it low considering how many young people are eligible?

Huerta: The number doesn't reflect what we were initially expecting because we weren't expecting huge numbers in the beginning. For most folks, including myself, it wasn't until I was able to talk to a lawyer about how the application process works that I felt comfortable enough to even start the process, which I haven't yet. Still collecting docs.    

M-A: Based on what you have been seeing, are some applicants hesitating, and why? Are some people waiting until after the election? And for those who are applying now, how smoothly is the process going?

Huerta: It's safe to say that the first batch of folks that applied right of the bat, they were Dreamers who were under 25 and younger and had most of their paperwork ready to go since the June announcement was made. It's easier for them to apply since they've been in school the majority of their lives, had no criminal records and they have immediate resources in being able to pay for the application fee. 

For the better part, most folks are holding back in applying not just because of the cost, but in acquiring all the docs USCIS is asking for. I myself will have to visit multiple offices to get school records and find other docs to fill in gaps between school to prove continuous residence.  

Other barriers are the questions that USCIS asks in the applications, most notably the questions having to do with the use of Social Security numbers. Not even the lawyers that are helping folks fill out the application know how to go about the question, because they don't want folks lying and then getting caught later, or folks admitting they have used fake Social Security numbers and then getting denied the application.  

At the same time, something that was stressed during workshops, forums, events etc. was that folks can only apply once, that they shouldn't lie on their applications because that would put them at the top of the list for deportation and that there's no deadline, contrary to what most folks think. 

Speaking for myself, since I'm older, I'm finding it harder to find the needed paperwork, and the issue of having some criminal record - jaywalking tickets and stuff like that that I've paid off - it's up in the air how USCIS will handle my application. 

The attorney: Alma Rosa Nieto, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles and a legal expert for the Telemundo network. 

M-A: Does this number reflect the demand that was expected, or is it low considering how many young people are eligible? 

Nieto: The number in my opinion is low considering that the approximate number of potential applicants is well over one and a half million.

M-A: Based on what you have been seeing, are some applicants hesitating, and why? Are some waiting until after the election? And for those who are applying now, how smoothly is the process going?

Nieto: In my busy immigration practice I have seen fear and hesitancy on the part of students who have the possibility of applying for deferred action. Some are fearful that their information could be used against their parents, others fear the lack of clear definition of juvenile offenses that may render them ineligible, since immigration has clearly stated that juvenile offenses will be considered on a case by case basis.

There is also confusion as to whether misdemeanor traffic code violations, such as driving without a license, will be considered as misdemeanors or as traffic violations. Three misdemeanors render an applicant ineligible but traffic violations are not a bar to this relief. Others are fearful of being put under deportation proceedings once the program ends. Lastly, a large group is in a "wait and see" mode, fearful that Obama may lose the presidential reelection and the new president may eliminate deferred action.

The advocate: Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles.

M-A: Does this number reflect the demand that was expected, or is it low considering how many young people are eligible?

Cabrera: We expected some trepidation but we would like to see many more applications than 72,000. At this rate, we are concerned our educational efforts to reach as many potential applicants may need some serious boosting. 

M-A: Based on what you have been seeing, are some applicants hesitating, and why? Are some waiting until after the election? And for those who are applying now, how smoothly is the process going?

Cabrera: There are three general areas that may speak to what may be happening: 1) The financial costs for some applicants is prohibitive. Although the application fee is $465, many applicants must pay for processing fees which can range from $40 at CHIRLA to $2,500 with private attorneys. It is extremely difficult for someone not working full time to offset these costs right away; 2) high concern over what may happen to the program if there a change in administration. There is skepticism that the information furnished to USCIS may be used by ICE or DHS to deport those who have applied; and, 3) limited availability of trustworthy organizations and service providers nationally that can offer quality services at reasonable costs.

The process is definitely a lot more detail-oriented than anyone predicted. Although the form itself is seven pages long, applications can contain up to one hundred or more different documents to ensure no stone is left unturned. There is no appeal process which is why we want everyone to submit the best, the most accurate, the most complete application possible.

Read more about deferred action on the USCIS site here.

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