The test run for immigration legalization — the 2012 program to grant tentative legal status to young illegal immigrants — has exposed some serious problems that likely would need to be solved if Congress approves a broad immigration reform bill creating a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million in the country illegally.
From exceptionally high approval rates — 97 percent of all applicants have been given legal status — to accusations that the government gave the illegal immigrants' applications priority over those of legal immigrants, the trial run shows some of the difficulties in administering any legalization.
For young immigrants who have obtained legal status, it has been a boon. They have gained work permits and are able to access some privileges such as obtaining driver's licenses.
Critics say the 97 percent rate suggests little vetting that would lead to approval of criminals and other undeserving applicants if the same method is applied to a broader legalization program.
"That says that the agency is going to be rubber-stamping applications and they're going to be focused primarily on approving as many people as possible as quickly as possible, with only a light review, and that their focus is going to be on quantity of approvals rather than quality of decisions," said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was born out of President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. Struggling to bolster support among Hispanic voters in the months before the election, the president said he would use executive action to halt deportations for young illegal immigrants. He previously said he didn't have that authority.
The first applications arrived on Aug. 15, 2012, and more than 610,000 had been successfully submitted as of Dec. 31, 2013. Of those, 521,815 were approved and 15,968 were denied, which worked out to a 97.03 percent approval rating.
Immigration advocates said the high approval rate isn't a sign of lax vetting, but rather evidence that those who applied were prepared and deserving. They said those who were ineligible generally didn't bother to apply and that the bigger problem wasn't too many undeserving immigrants trying to gain status, but too few deserving people.
"By far, the biggest barrier to people applying has been just blatant misinformation," said Adam Luna, director of Own the Dream campaign, which helps "dreamers."
The name is taken from legislation that never passed Congress but would have given young immigrants a path to citizenship. Mr. Obama's policy cannot confer citizenship, but it can confer benefits of legal status such as work permits.
Mr. Luna said the application process for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals presented some early problems but that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of approving immigration benefits, worked closely with advocates to resolve the issues.
Mr. Luna said that feedback loop would be important for any broader legalization.
More recently, the program came under fire after The New York Times reported that the Obama administration couldn't handle the level of applications and had to delay processing Americans' requests for family members' visas in order to process the deferred action requests.
The time frame for the family reunification requests went from an average of five months to as long as 15 months, according to the report.
Kenneth Palinkas, president of the union for USCIS officers and adjudicators, who has battled the agency over its policies, said they feared those sorts of problems could result from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
"It seemed like DACA took precedence," he said.
USCIS said the wait time has been reduced to eight months and the agency hopes to return it to five months soon.
"The agency manages the volume of cases it receives through a network of processing centers and local offices and regularly rebalances its workload," said USCIS spokesman Christopher S. Bentley.
He said the agency is committed to "timely adjudication" of the petitions from green card holders to bring their families to the U.S.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application runs six pages. It asks whether the applicant entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa, where the applicant has lived in the U.S., and the applicant's level of educational attainment, and includes a list of yes-or-no questions about arrests, gang membership and terrorist interests.
The fee is $465, which covers the application process and costs for having biometric identifiers taken and stored by the government.
A number of questions have been raised over how closely USCIS is reviewing the applications and over the documents it is accepting as proof of age and residency. Requirements include passports, pay stubs, utility bills and notarized affidavits from friends.
Few applicants have in-person interviews, which likely adds to the high approval rate and creates a security problem, said Mr. Palinkas, chief of the labor union.
He said any broader legalization for illegal immigrants should include in-person interviews and strict checks on documents.
"I cannot see how you can grant anybody a benefit when you haven't even seen them, and they've already broken the law," he said. "It becomes almost comical that this is the way they're proceeding."
Whatever the lessons to be learned from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the man who oversaw the process will have a chance to see them through.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who ran USCIS for the past two years, was promoted in December to be deputy homeland security secretary and was put in charge of preparing the department for full legalization.
So far, with more than a half-million people approved, reports of bad behavior have been few.
This month, however, a 19-year-old woman was referred for deportation after she was convicted of two counts of felony hit-and-run. The woman, who was in the U.S. under the deferred action program, had driven her car through a pile of leaves and killed two girls who apparently had been playing and hiding in the leaf pile.
It's impossible to know how many others have run afoul of the law and face deportation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it doesn't keep track of that data.
The agency also said there is no automatic deportation trigger.
"Every case is evaluated on its individual merits," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said. "If a DACA recipient is convicted of a criminal violation subsequent to their receiving the benefit, ICE would make an individual determination about whether or not the nature of the violation warranted their appearance in immigration court."
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