When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made comments to media about the Obama administration's deferred action program, chances are he wasn't planning to inspire new applicants for temporary legal status. But it seems he has.
The program, which took effect in August, allows young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation. Romney commented last week that if he is elected, he'd honor the reprieves already granted, but his campaign later clarified that he would eliminate the program. And this, in turn, has prompted some would-be applicants who’d sat on the fence to get their paperwork ready.
One is 24-year-old Vanessa Guerrero of Fontana, who had hoped to eventually apply for deferred action. But like other young undocumented immigrants, she’d hesitated admitting her status to the federal government. That changed last Friday, when she marched into a downtown Los Angeles immigration attorney’s office, ready to start the application process.
“I heard what he said, that he didn’t approve it," Guerrero said. "It made me feel afraid. If he comes into office, then he is going to terminate that program. I thought about it, and I’m not going to wait.”
Neither are other applicants, says immigration attorney Alma Rosa Nieto. Usually she accepts clients by appointment, but now she’s seeing more walk-ins like Guerrero.
"I'm seeing two things," Nieto said. "One is there is a fear that this is going to end, and this was before the Romney announcement. And now there is more fear, because they fear that if President Obama doesn’t get elected, the new president would go ahead and eliminate this executive order. People are very aware of it in the news and in Spanish media, so the fear is heightened."
At the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, an immigrant advocacy organization that is assisting deferred action applicants, staff members are hearing similar concerns.
"Many people want to apply before the elections so that if Romney wins they will have at least gone through the process," wrote CHIRLA executive director Angelica Salas in an email. "It would be difficult to take away an individual grant of discretion but the program certainly could be discontinued."
But there are still some who are waiting until after the election, provided Obama wins, "to make sure that they do not risk coming forward and then being deported," she said.
Obama's executive order, announced in June, makes it possible for young people who entered the United States as minors under 16 to seek legal status and a work permit if meet certain criteria. Among other things, they must have lived in the country five continuous years, have a clean record, and have been no older than 30 as of last June 15. Deferred action is renewable after two years, but it doesn't offer a path to citizenship.
Some critics of the president have criticized the program as a shameless ploy for the Latino vote; they also label it insensitive and worse amid persistent high unemployment. Those arguments inform Romney’s position. In a recent interview with the Spanish-language TV network Univision, Romney derided deferred action, saying "these kids deserve something better than temporary, they deserve a permanent solution.”
Romney hasn’t indicated what that solution would be. More than 82,000 young people have applied for deferred action since mid-August, and the federal government has approved only a small number so far. The thought of coming forward still scares Vanessa Guerrero, who’s lived in the United States since she arrived here from Mexico at age 11. But she likes the idea that for the first time, if she goes back to college, she might be able to use the degree she earns.
“In two years I can do a lot," Guerrero said. "I am going to take the opportunity, now that I have it.”
A change in the White House wouldn’t affect deferred action until at least January. But it can take some time for applicants to gather the paperwork they need to apply, and January is just three months away.