The administration has approved 99.5 percent of applications of those who have applied for legal status under President Obama’s nondeportation policy for young adults, granting legal status to more than 250,000 formerly illegal immigrants.
Officials said they expect the approval rate to drop as more cases make their way through the system, as it takes longer to deny an application than to approve it. Indeed, the approval rate already has dropped from 99.8 percent just a month ago.
But the high rate leaves others wondering whether the administration is doing all it can to weed out fraud or potentially dangerous illegal immigrants in DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as it’s formally known.
“You really have to wonder who they’re giving deferred action to, and what kind of risk they represent to us,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. “The screening process is much less for DACA than it would be for a green card, and so it’s all that much more susceptible to fraud.”
DACA is seen by many as a test-run should Congress pass a broad legalization for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
That means the pressure is on Homeland Security to get it right, and officials say they are taking steps to combat fraud, including warning that bogus applicants will be prosecuted and deported.
Mr. Obama created the program last summer to try to help illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.
His policy allows them to remain and work in the U.S. on tentative legal status with no fear of deportation, though they do not have a direct path to citizenship. That path could come, though, under the immigration bill senators are beginning to debate, which would give DACA-approved immigrants a speedier chance at citizenship.
On Monday, one of those legalized under DACA pleaded with Congress to give her that chance.
“Legalizing people like me, the 11 million of us, will make the United States stronger and will bring about significant economic gains,” said Gabriel Pacheco, who was brought to the U.S. from Ecuador at age 8 by her parents. “Doing nothing is no longer acceptable.”
Her situation captures the complexities of American immigration: One of her sisters is about to earn citizenship as the wife of a U.S. citizen, with two citizen children; another sister is here illegally and didn’t qualify for DACA because she was too old; and her younger brother, 27, who owns a carwashing business, did qualify. Ms. Pacheco’s husband, meanwhile, is a Venezuelan who has lived in the U.S. for 26 years and earned his green card last year after an 18-year wait.
Mr. Obama announced the DACA policy in June, and the government began taking applications in August.
It was a galvanizing moment for immigrant rights advocates, and Hispanic voters in particular rewarded the president by voting for his re-election in overwhelming numbers.
The policy applies to illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and who were not yet 31 when the program was announced.
Illegal immigrants with serious criminal records aren’t supposed to qualify. To be eligible, applicants must have graduated from high school or earned an equivalency degree or served in the military.
Through the first 7 months of the program, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 268,316 illegal immigrants for tentative legal status, while denying just 1,377 applications.
A Homeland Security official said the denials will tick up as time passes. Those whom the department plans to reject are given time to submit more evidence or appeal their denial, while approvals go through immediately.
For example, while USCIS approved 29,793 applications in the first six weeks of the program, it denied just six applications, or one out of every 5,000. But in March, the agency approved about 98.2 percent, meaning it denied nine out of every 500 applications.
“USCIS has issued some denials but expects denial rates to increase once requests for evidence and notice of intent to deny responses are received and reviewed by USCIS,” a Homeland Security official said.
Louis “Don” Crocetti Jr., who retired in 2011 after serving as the head of the USCIS fraud branch, also predicted his old agency’s denial rate will rise because of how it handles cases.
“It’s not uncommon, in fact it is more common than not, that the questionable cases are put on the back end in order to [make sure] the more deserving candidates get the benefit,” said Mr. Crocetti, who now runs the Immigration Integrity Group, a consultancy.
Cesar Vargas, one of those who has gained legal status under DACA and is executive political director of DRM Action Coalition, said the high approval rate makes sense given who is in this pool of immigrants.
“I am not surprised, just as most Americans and senators should not be not surprised, since many of the DACA applicants who applied were youth and students who were committed to their school and work,” Mr. Vargas said. “Dreamers have been in the U.S. for most of our lives such that it was not as difficult to put the paperwork proving our presence and moral character.”
Through the end of March, the department had received 472,004 completed applications and had settled nearly 270,000 of them.
Mr. Crocetti said DACA is a chance for the administration to test its screening process as it prepares for the possibility of a broad legalization for all 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
“We are in a post-9/11 world, as most recently evinced by the events in Boston,” he said. “This is a pivotal time that we have to get this right. We have to screen these people accurately, and we really have to know what are the key indicators to look for when these people file.”
Unlike the 1986 amnesty, when every applicant was interviewed in person and there still was double-digit fraud Mr. Crocetti said that’s not likely to be an option this time around. But he said technology has become so advanced that the agency can come up with analytical tools that can predict applications most likely to be fraudulent.
Ms. Vaughan, the policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors a crackdown on immigration, said that in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings that should be a priority for any legalization program, including the ongoing DACA system.
“That’s very concerning in light of the most recent reminder namely this terror attack in Boston, near where I live,” she said, “that we simply are not taking enough care in screening the people we admit for legal status whether it’s this kind of deferred action or a green card or an asylum application.”