NPR ran a story on Wednesday stating that 82,000 applications for deferred action have been received as of Monday. That seems to us to be a very low number, only 5.9% of the total (1,400,000) considered by most observers to be eligible for deferred action. Of those, 29 applicants, or 0.035% of the total received, have been processed and approved. These numbers, especially the first, surprised us at our firm. We had expected a much larger turnout in the first six weeks after the application process was opened. To a large degree much of our anticipation of a larger initial applicant pool was based on the high level of attention given to the newly announced prosecutorial discretion process by industry insiders: immigration lawyers, government spokespeople, social services, Hispanic organizations and the press. The relative low number of applications so far seems to point to several explanations:
- Many potential candidates are holding off to see how the process goes for others. There is a marked distrust of government programs that seem too good to be true. Most of the potential applicants live much of their lives with their heads down, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Coming out openly and voluntarily goes against a strong sense of self-preservation. If they see it going well for others they know, they will come forward.
- Waiting for the election. They don’t want to go through the process if Romney is going to halt and gut it. While most insiders agree that, once institute, the plan will be continued no matter who wins, that opinion is a hard sell to many illegal immigrants.
- They are not convinced of the guarantees against punitive action against them or family members. This is similar to the first bullet point. If they see no detentions happening as a result of applying for deferred action, they will come forward.
- Despite the anticipation prior to August 15th, word has not gotten out as well as we thought it had to a large number of potential applicants.
The very small number of applications approved is not startling. We had anticipated that the process would require up to four months; one month to approve the application prior to authorizing the biometric testing and up to three months to process the work permit after that testing. That 29 people have completed the process in less than six weeks is actually encouraging. What was not included in the article but seems to be happening in our talks with other immigration attorneys is that very few letters telling applicants where and when to go for biometric testing have been received. This points to the processing going slowly and those 29 are the exception to the rule. If 82,000 applications have been received and if the initial processing time per application is the ten minutes estimated by the USCIS we should be seeing more applicants receiving their biometric letters. That we have not may be the result of errors found in the applications by the reviewers. We know that one local social service agency that offered application preparation by a registered agent was overwhelmed the first week after the process was opened. Many social service and consumer advocacy agencies guided potential applicants to government web sites that made the documents available for self-completion. Also, notarios are using deferred action as an income stream without the expertise or need to correctly complete applications. Mistakes are more likely in such an atmosphere. This scenario may be playing out nationwide.
This means that there is still a large pool out there from which to draw clients. There was not and will not be a tidal wave of applicants but a steady flow, at least until the election. We are seeing referrals coming to us from clients already processed. If the estimated 1,400,000 potential applicants is a valid number and if only 82,000 applications have been received, 1,300,000 are still out there waiting.