President Obama’s deportation amnesty for illegal immigrant Dreamers approved 93 percent of all applications decided through December — a strikingly high number that will likely play a role next month when the Supreme Court hears a legal challenge to a broader amnesty.
The program for Dreamers was considered a test run for the broader amnesty Mr. Obama announced in late 2014, and which has been held up by lower courts as judges sort out whether the administration had the authority to grant tentative stays of deportation, issue work permits and make illegal immigrants eligible for some taxpayer benefits.
For Mr. Obama, the key to his argument is that he is not rewriting the law but only offering guidance on how to prioritize enforcement. He insists his officers still have discretion in every case to grant or deny amnesty, even if someone meets all the criteria for the program, known in governmentspeak as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
But his opponents say the 93 percent approval rate undercuts that argument.
“It tells me that they’re rubber-stamping DACA applications. Any program that four years after its initiation is still approving 93 percent of applicants is a program that doesn’t have very high standards,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for an immigration crackdown.
Although Dreamers were in little danger of being deported under Mr. Obama’s policies, DACA went further. It granted a proactive two-year stay of deportation, issued work permits and Social Security numbers, and made illegal immigrants eligible for some taxpayer benefits.
The administration began accepting DACA applications in August 2012, in the middle of Mr. Obama’s re-election bid. In 2014, after his party was crushed in midterm congressional elections, Mr. Obama tried to expand the amnesty to three years and making as many as 5 million illegal immigrant parents eligible.
Texas led 25 other states in suing to stop the program, known as Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, or DAPA. Judges have halted the amnesty for parents while the case winds through courts. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments April 18 and could issue a ruling by the end of June.
While DACA is different from DAPA, the two are so closely related that the lower-court judges have used the performance of the Dreamer amnesty to inform their rulings on the broader program for parents. That’s why the DACA approval rate has become an issue.
At of the end of last year, nearly 715,000 people had been approved and fewer than 55,000 had been rejected. That rate is similar to the 94 percent success rate of a farmworker amnesty that was part of the 1986 amnesty. Reports said fraud within that program could have been as high as 50 percent.
No such widespread fraud charges have been leveled against DACA, and advocates for Dreamers say part of the reason the approval rate is so high is that the immigrants themselves have done a good job of making sure they are eligible before they apply. That means there are fewer borderline cases to be judged, and possibly denied.
Also, the nearly $500 cost makes immigrants think carefully before applying, said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
“There are a number of very good reasons why you would expect to see an approval rate around where the approval rate is,” Mr. Jawetz said.
He said a 7 percent denial is a “meaningful amount” that the lower court judges shouldn’t have dismissed.
The 93 percent initial approval rate is lower than at the beginning of the program.
Initially, 99.5 percent of applicants were granted DACA status, or what advocates call “DACAmented” — a play on the word “documented.” Trickier applications took longer to decide, and more of those were denied, part of the reason the approval rate has fallen.
The program has been around long enough that the initial two-year period has expired for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, who have applied for renewals. The renewal rate is 99.3 percent, according to the latest Homeland Security statistics.
District Judge Andrew S. Hanen and the majority on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the high approval rates suggested that Mr. Obama was writing a new policy. Judge Hanen rejected the president’s argument that he was only issuing guidelines to carry out existing law.
“The key fact — more so than the 92 percent grant rate — is that the government has been unable to identify a single instance where a DACA applicant was denied for discretionary reasons,” said Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law who has helped craft briefs supporting Texas’ case.
Indeed, Judge Hanen said he asked the government during oral arguments for examples and, except for cases of fraud, the administration couldn’t point to any cases in which officers rejected an application that otherwise met the criteria.
Immigrant rights groups are countering that argument in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. They offered a number of cases that they said proved officers were using discretion to reject applications.
In one case, an immigrant identified by his first name, Christian, 24, had already been ordered deported along with his father, who was accused of being part of crimes in Guatemala’s decades-old civil war. The advocates say Christian applied for the amnesty and met all the criteria and was even a hardship case because he was the sole provider for his daughter and her mother, yet he was denied without further explanation.
In another case, a Virginia man named Francisco, who arrived from Mexico when he was 10, was denied DACA benefits. The immigrant rights advocates said he is married to a U.S. citizen, has a 6-year-old child who is a citizen and had a minor criminal record that shouldn’t have disqualified him — yet he, too, was denied.
Lawyers also raised the case of Gabriela, a 31-year-old who had been approved for the amnesty in June 2014 but had it revoked a year and a half later.
“The argument that the government lacks discretion to deny deferred action, or to revoke it at any time once granted, is simply wrong,” the attorneys for the immigrant rights groups said in their brief to the high court.