Three months ago, young undocumented immigrants lined up in front of some immigrant service organizations and foreign consulates to learn about deferred action, an Obama administration program that launched in August. Known as DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program offers temporary legal status to young people who arrived in the country before their 16th birthday.
But since an initial peak in September, incoming applications have since slowed. New numbers released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services indicate that applications peaked at 5,715 a day in September; this month, as recorded through Nov. 15, they were averaging 4,527 a day.
No one knows exactly why, but theories abound. Some would-be applicants hesitated to file before the Nov. 7 election, especially after former Republican president candidate Mitt Romney said he’d discontinue the program. But no immidate spike seemed to happen after Romney lost.
Some immigrant advocates believe the $465 filing fee is too steep for many applicants, especially around the holidays. Others believe that while younger applicants who had an easier time filing have moved through the pipeline, the process has been more complicated for others. And with renewed talk of immigration reform coming from Washington since the election, there’s also a possibility that some might be holding out for a legislative fix, although that's probably far off.
In Southern California, some immigrant service providers and advocates have gotten a sense of declining interest while others haven’t.
“On our end, the interest has not decreased, and the number of applications that we are processing are pretty much the same,” said Mario Beltran, co-founder of the Southeast Leadership Network. That group has sponsored deferred action workshops around the Los Angeles area.
Beltran said the only times he’s seen limited attendance at these workshops is when access to transportation is an issue, otherwise, “we haven’t seen that decrease.”
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles has been helping people prepare applications since the program began Aug. 15. While that organization still has appointments lined up through April, the initial rush took place between mid-August and mid-September, said spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera.
“The first month is also when we saw a lot of people outside our office, lining up to receive orientation, which is the first step” Cabrera said. “Once that orientation is over, then it is an issue of ‘Do I have the money to pay that $465? And if I need an attorney…where do I get that additional $200, or $2,000?’ “
The federal government has fielded more than 300,000 applications as of mid-November, but that's a fraction of the anticipated demand; by some estimates, close to 2 million young people could be eligible.
Cabrera thinks cost is one reason the anticipated throngs of applicants never quite materialized, and money is even tighter this time of year. To that end, the organization plans to launch holiday-themed campaign aimed at immigrant families dubbed “DACA, not XBox,” he said, because “we believe that an investment in DACA will go a longer way than buying them the latest gadget.”
Cost aside, eligibility requirements for applicants are stringent. Among other things, applicants must have relatively clean records and solid proof they've lived in the United States continously for the five years. That's not easy to document for people who've lived and worked in the shadows.
Nora Phillips, a staff attorney at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in Los Angeles, said the initial wave of applicants consisted largely of younger, savvier, U.S.-reared immigrants who arrived well-prepared with documentation as soon as the program was available. But others – including older applicants who have a harder time coming up with the required documentation – have been less likely to apply, at least not as quickly.
“I think that what you are seeing now is the older individuals, for whom getting that continuous residency documentation is really difficult,” Phillips said. “Or people who are really just scared, even thought the election happened. They are still terrified to move forward, or even seek legal advice, because they might have a criminal issue, or some other thing they think might present an issue.”
Another potential factor could be renewed interest in comprehensive immigration reform, of which there has been talk in the nation’s capital post-election. Cabrera said he’s heard some optimism, most of it from the parents of would-be deferred action applicants. But he cautioned that a legislative solution – if there is one – could still be far away.
“There is a sense of expectation, but we have been trying to temper it with our understanding that...we really might not see anything formalized or decided on in 2013,” he said. “We want to, but it may take a couple of years before we see something real that will impact these DACA-eligible students and their families.”
Finally, perhaps it's too early to detect a spike in post-election interest: Cabrera noted that since the election, he has seen more people trickling in to the organization's twice-daily deferred action orientation sessions. Some of them could apply soon.
Of the 308,935 total deferred applications filed through mid-November, the federal government has accepted 298,834 and rejected 10,101. More than 120,000 are under final review for approval, and 53,273 have been approved. See more of the federal DACA numbers here.