President Obama's non-deportation policy for children turns a year old Thursday, and both sides agree it's a test run for a broader legalization — one that has thrilled immigrant rights groups who say it has broken stereotypes and changed the political calculus, but that has worried enforcement advocates who say illegal immigrants are being given blanket approval without enough attention to fraud.
Known in governmentspeak as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program has granted a two-year stay of deportation to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and has given them the chance to remain and work in the U.S. with no danger of being kicked out.
Mr. Obama announced the program last year, saying he was tired of waiting for Congress to pass a bill granting young illegal immigrants a full pathway to citizenship, so in the absence of that he would use executive discretion to decide not to deport any of the young adults, who call themselves Dreamers after the Dream Act legislation that failed in Congress.
The president's campaign-season move energized Hispanic voters, boxed in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and fundamentally altered political calculations, setting the stage for Mr. Obama's re-election and for the current immigration debate on Capitol Hill.
"DACA was a turning point," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. "It put a face on the immigration issue and set aside fears that legalization is unworkable or politically disastrous. It showed that immigration reform on a grander scale can work and that it is the right thing to do."
Through June 30, the program, administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, had approved 400,562 applications, or 98.7 percent of those who received final decisions.
Mr. Obama's policy was controversial from the start. For years, he denied that he had the authority to issue a blanket stay of deportation, but changed his mind as he was trying to find a way to connect with Hispanic voters last year.
The administration initially said there was no official legal status attached to DACA, but later reversed and said it was a two-year grant of legal presence that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain state driver's licenses.
The policy has survived one legal challenge in a federal court in Texas. Now some lawmakers fear — and activists hope — that Mr. Obama will expand his policy to include more illegal immigrants if Congress fails to pass a bill that would grant them a pathway to citizenship.
The Senate has passed such a bill, including a quick pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. House Republicans have declared that bill dead, but leaders have said they would write their own set of bills, including one that would grant Dreamers permanent legal status.
In the meantime, DACA has given the government and immigrant rights groups a chance to figure out how best to help immigrants enroll.
"I almost consider what we're doing as a road test for broader legalization implementation — whether that's broader policy change that comes from the president or legislative change — everything we're doing really from outreach to community efforts to bring costs down, from partnering with our national legal partners, even our back-end data system, all this is really testing and developing best practices for legalization," said Adam Luna, director of Own the Dream, an advocacy group.
Among those lessons are that some requirements, such as paying high application fees and requiring English skills, could keep immigrants from becoming legalized. Mr. Luna also said activists have learned how to combat misinformation about the program and how to help applicants avoid scams.
Those who want stricter law enforcement say that if DACA is a test run, it has been a failure.
Kenneth Palinkas, chief of the USCIS Council, the union that represents the employees reviewing and approving the applications, said approving nearly 99 percent of applications is "an astronomical rate."
"If 99 percent are being granted, it's almost like, 'Why are they even being adjudicated?'" he told The Washington Times, adding that agency employees are pressed to try to grant approvals rather than denials. "It doesn't really ask for much information, and the feedback I'm getting from officers is that if you're going to deny any of those cases they put you through loops to try to discourage it."
Unlike the 1986 amnesty, USCIS employees aren't required to hold in-person interviews for DACA applicants, which Mr. Palinkas said makes it tougher to weed out bad cases.
Likewise, the Senate immigration bill wouldn't require in-person interviews for most of the 11 million seeking a full pathway to citizenship — one reason Mr. Palinkas' group opposes that bill.
Administration officials have said they expect the DACA approval rate to fall as fewer applications are filed, and as denials, which take longer to process, work their way through the system. In June alone, the approval rate dropped to less than 96 percent.
'A pretty big decision'
Behind the numbers are case stories about those who have come forward.
The vast majority — more than 75 percent — are from Mexico, with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala far distant. Some who were among the earliest to sign up became coordinators helping others with their applications.
Early this year, Mr. Gutierrez hired one DACA recipient, Jose Quintero, to do his DACA casework. Mr. Quintero just left to attend architecture school in Chicago, but Mr. Gutierrez said he has hired Nancy Onofre, another DACA recipient, to help process 80 to 100 applications in the office each month.
About half of the people who are eligible have applied, according to the latest estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, though the group noted that it's still a higher rate than the 1986 amnesty signed into law by President Reagan, which approved about 20 percent of likely eligible applicants at the same time in its life cycle.
Dream organizers said many are wrestling with the decision.
"My experience with the Dream movement and Dreamers is that for each and every person the process of coming forward and coming out has been a deeply personal one that they've needed to really deal with," Mr. Luna said.
"There are even some folks within the movement whose parents are uncomfortable with them coming forward," he said. "So this is a pretty big decision."
Some numbers about the program are hard to come by. The Homeland Security Department, which oversees USCIS, declined a request from The Washington Times for more details about who is being approved.
Earlier this year, though, the agency provided some data to Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
According to those figures, which ran through at least the first six months of the program, 2,466 cases had been referred for further scrutiny because of suspected fraud, but none had been denied because of it. Nobody whose application was denied had been put into deportation proceedings by USCIS.
Though the form asks about criminal and immigration history, Homeland Security officials told Mr. Grassley that they didn't store data on how many applicants had criminal records or how many applicants were slated to be deported.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said she was concerned about how few people were being denied and what was happening — or not happening — to the few who were denied.
"Besides the fact that they're not even looking for fraud, they're definitely not punishing it," Ms. Vaughan said. "The word will get out on the street that you probably won't get caught, and even if you do get caught, nothing's going to happen to you."
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