How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

As more deferred action applications roll in, processing them could take a while

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A man holds a list of guidelines during a deferred action applicants' workshop at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, August 14, 2012

More young undocumented immigrants have filed for deferred action, temporary legal status under a new Obama administration program that launched in mid-August. But as the volume of applicants grows, so apparently will the processing time, which means that many applicants who file now could still be waiting for an answer early next year.

Close to 4,600 people who filed applications starting August 15 have already been approved, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported late last week. But the speedy processing time they experienced was due to what initially was a low volume of applicants, an agency spokesman explained via email. A new agency statement reads that "it is expected that the average length of time to process a request will be between four and six months," which is the amount of time the agency had initially anticipated for processing the applications.

Since August 15, nearly 180,000 young people have applied for deferred action, which applies to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States prior to turning 16. More than 150,000 applicants are awaiting appointments to submit fingerprints, part of the approval process. There are some 6,400 applications awaiting a final decision. If these applicants are approved, they will be granted two years of temporary legal status, renewable so long as the program continues, and a work permit. 

Some immigration attorneys and advocacy organizations who are assisting applicants have reported that in the last two weeks, since Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicated that he'd discontinue deferred action if elected, they've seen an uptick in interest. Romney said he would honor the reprieves already granted, but his campaign clarified that he would not issue new ones.

“I heard what he said, that he didn’t approve it," 24-year-old applicant Vanessa Guerrero said in an interview last week. "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.”

Guerrero, of Fontana, had come in to a downtown Los Angeles immigration attorney's office as a walk-in to start the application process after learning of the Romney campaign's position.

If there is a change in administration, the soonest this could affect deferred action is January, after the presidential inauguration. But that would still be ahead of the anticipated processing time as more applications roll in.

The number of applicants is more than double the number reported by USCIS last month. But it's still a small fraction of the estimated population of young undocumented immigrants who could be eligible for deferred action, which some estimates have placed at close to 2 million.

In addition to the age requirement, there are strict criteria for applicants to meet, including that they have a record free of any serious criminal offenses, have lived in the country at least five continuous years, and have been no older than 30 as of last June 15.

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