Undocumented immigrants' interest in federal deferred action program high, applications low
SALT LAKE CITY — Interest from undocumented immigrants in applying for deferred action has been intense, evidenced by attendance at workshops sponsored by community organizations in service to the Latino community.
More than 1,300 people in Utah have attended 21 workshops on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals since the federal program was announced in June. Some 43 volunteers, including immigration attorneys, have provided information and helped people prepare applications.
"When we started this, we had a goal in mind of reaching out to 500 people," said Chris Keen, president of the Utah chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
But there appears to be a disconnect between interest and the application process, Keen said.
According to federal statistics, 745 people in Utah applied for deferred action during the first month of the program. An estimated 16,744 people in Utah are eligible for the program under current guidelines, according to immigration lawyers.
The program is open to undocumented people under 30 who entered the United States as children and meet residency and education requirements.
Keen said there are ongoing concerns about the longevity of a program established under an executive order.
For others, money is an issue. The application process costs $465 — $85 for a background check and $380 to apply for an Employment Authorization Document.
"A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck, and that makes it difficult," Keen said.
Deferred action is not legal status. It means federal immigration authorities defer removal actions as an act of prosecutorial discretion for a two-year period. Applications can be renewed without limit, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"It's an imperfect form of relief, and it's temporary," Keen said. "Maybe that's part of the reason people have waited to apply because this isn't a pathway to citizenship. Maybe they're waiting for something better."
A Weber State University survey of people who have attended community workshops has revealed some interesting trends, he said.
"The older these kids get, fewer seem to apply," Keen said.
The largest applicant group has been teens ages 16-19, followed by people in their early 20s, according to the survey.
"It really drops down the older they get," he said.
Though Keen can only speculate as to why people in their late 20s are not applying, it may be because they did not graduate from high school or obtain a GED certificate, which is a requirement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Some may have criminal histories they believe would make them ineligible and possibly result in their deportations. Applicants may not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or three or more other misdemeanors.
Most of the Utahns who have applied have lived in the United States more than 10 years. Seventy-six percent of the people who responded to the university survey said they felt American.
"They felt culturally they were American. They grew up here and thought of themselves as part of our society," Keen said.
People approved for the deferred action program receive a work permit and a Social Security number, which Keen said should help them "overcome many difficult problems they encounter."
"If a person has a clean record and they're eligible, a lot of times they should apply for it," he said.
Keen said he is not aware of any current statistics regarding the number of people in Utah who have applied for the program, or how many applicants have been approved or denied.
Nationwide, some 53,000 deferred action applications had been approved as of Nov. 15, among roughly 300,000 accepted for review. About 10,000 applications have been rejected, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Office of Performance and Quality. USCIS had no state-specific data, a spokesman said.
Local immigration attorneys said they are aware of five people who were referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation after their applications were denied, likely due to unresolved criminal matters, Keen said.
A surge in applications had been expected after the presidential election, but that hasn't been the case, he said.
As more people are approved for the deferred action program, that may change. Keen said some people are reticent "to give up all this information for something that allows them to be here for just two years."
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