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Only half of those eligible for deferred deportation applied in first year

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WASHINGTON – A year after the Obama administration said it would defer deportation of immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, only about half of eligible Arizonans have applied for the program.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had accepted applications from 18,449 Arizonans since the program was announced last June by President Barack Obama. That is just under 53 percent of the 34,836 people in the state that the Immigration Policy Center estimated were eligible for the program as of late last year.

Nationally, an estimated 59 percent of eligible immigrants have applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Advocates attribute the lagging numbers to the high cost of the application, a lack of access to legal advice and, in Arizona, to perceived hostility from the state government.

“People do understand what an incredible opportunity DACA is, but it’s just not that easy,” said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

But others said it still may be too soon to judge.

Mark Lopez, the associate director for the Pew Hispanic Center, pointed out that more than half of the 950,000 people nationwide who were immediately eligible applied.

“That’s important to note,” he said.

The program applies to immigrants here illegally who came here before age 16, have lived here continuously for the last five years, are in high school or the military – or have completed one of those.

Immigrants who are approved under the program will not be deported for two years and will get employment authorization documents that allow them to work while they are here. They can reapply for deferral every two years.

Of the 18,449 people in Arizona who had applied as of May, 13,674 had been approved, according to CIS. Nationally, 520,157 people have applied and 365,237 have been approved, the service said.

The Immigration Policy Center estimated in October that about 1.8 million immigrants nationally and 71,046 in Arizona will ultimately become eligible to apply for the program, as more of them reach age 16.

California has the most applicants, with 147,786 people having filed as of last month, CIS said. Arizona was sixth-highest among states.

Advocates said one reason Arizona might be lagging is the state’s refusal to issue licenses to immigrants approved under the deferred action program.

“It puts them (young immigrants) in a precarious situation,” said Evelyn Haydee Cruz, the director of the Immigration Law and Policy Clinic at Arizona State University.

Cruz said that in a state like Arizona, “you need to have a driver’s license, not just as a form of identification” but to be able to drive from place to place in the sprawling state.

The Arizona Dream Act Coalition sued Gov. Jan Brewer to force the state to issue driver’s licenses, but a federal district judge refused in May to order the state to act. The group filed an appeal Tuesday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Brewer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Lichter said immigrants in Arizona and elsewhere may also may be hesitant to apply because they do not want to reveal that they are in the country illegally with their families.

Before they put themselves on the government’s radar, applicants also want better access to legal services so they can guarantee they have a good case, said Wendy Feliz, communications director for the American Immigration Council.

Both Lichter and Feliz said immigrants may also be waiting and watching the immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate, to see if a more permanent immigration status will be available through new legislation.

That’s a mistake, they said. If immigration reform is passed, there will be a streamlined process for people in DACA who have already had a background check and gone through the process.

Despite a slow start, Lichter said she is optimistic about the program’s future. As more information is available, lawyers will be able to provide better legal advice about what cases could potentially be approved or denied.

“My prediction is that we will see continued slow but steady growth,” Lichter said.