AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - Seven months after the launch of a controversial initiative to give certain undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation proceedings, federal data shows that only California is home to more deferred action applicants than Texas. But the overall number of those applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has fallen sharply since the program began in earnest in August, which immigration lawyers say is a byproduct of the current debate over comprehensive immigration reform.
Deferred action, announced by the Obama administration in June, grants eligible applicants relief from deportation proceedings and allows them employment authorization for two years, subject to renewal, if they meet certain guidelines.
From August through March 14, about 453,600 applications have been filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees legal immigration to the U.S. About 73,260 have come from Texas, second to California's 128,400. A large majority of the applicants, about 338,300, have Mexican roots, with those from El Salvador a distant second at 18,500. About 16,000 applications have been denied, according to USCIS statistics.
Since peaking in September, when the agency was receiving more than 5,700 applications a day, the number of applications has dipped by more than 300 percent. In March, the agency has been getting about 1,680 applications per day.
"If they had not already applied for DACA, some of them were holding off until after the election, and now they are holding off to see what kind of immigration reform comes," said Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration attorney whose office has filed several dozen DACA applications. "I tell them: ‘Look, take advantage of every single opportunity you can with these guys because you don't know what form the immigration reform is going to take.'"
Since his re-election, President Obama has said immigration reform is one of his second-term priorities. Though a bill has yet to be filed, Congress and the White House are crafting their own versions of an overhaul. Both plans include a pathway to citizenship and include a strong border-enforcement component.
Deferred action, Watson explained, is more broad-based. That means that certain factors that could make one inadmissible after immigration reform takes shape don't necessarily apply.
"You could have a million red flags that could make you ineligible for a green card but still be eligible for DACA," she said.
Approval times have also started to lag, which Watson credits, at least in part, to the government's public relations strategy. Leading up to the election, she said, applications were processed within three months. Now those wait times are growing to as much as six months.
"I knew we were going to have some approvals before the election and sure enough we did," she said.
During a deferred action roundtable discussion last fall with stakeholders, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said the goal was to process applications in four to six months, though he said that paperwork wouldn't necessarily be processed "first in, first out."
Immigration reform timeline
Until federal lawmakers put forth an immigration reform bill that has a chance of passing, Watson said she and other attorneys would probably keep encouraging undocumented immigrants to apply for deferred action. If immigration reform passes within the two-year reprieve, the immigrant doesn't have to reapply for a new permit, she said.
Across the country, supporters of reform with a pathway to citizenship are hopeful that the U.S. Senate will put forth a plan next month. Jeremy Robbins, the director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of business owners and elected officials that advocates for immigration reform, told The Texas Tribune that the Senate is likely on track to propose a bill in April. The partnership's members include former and current San Antonio Mayors Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and El Paso Mayor John Cook. Robbins said Republicans appear to be warming to the idea of a comprehensive plan that includes a pathway to citizenship, which was evident last week when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told an audience at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he supported bringing immigrants out of the shadows. Four of the eight senators crafting the upper chamber's bill are also Republicans.
"When you start looking at a path for citizenship, it's good for the economy because it's going to get people who are more vested in the system," Robbins said. "It's good for society and as more and more Republican and conservative leaders make that case. … I think it will be much easier for people in places like Texas and around the country to get on board, and I think that is certainly in the direction we're going."
A recent poll, however, indicates Texans pushing for comprehensive reform have a ways to go to persuade their own. A February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found most Republicans here oppose comprehensive immigration reform that includes a "path to citizenship." Tea Party Texans are even stronger in their opposition.
Robbins said that is more of a messaging issue.
"I think a lot of the way this issue has been discussed for decades, with terms like ‘amnesty' and ‘comprehensive,' which to some degree has become a loaded term, you can find animosity to that," he said. "But when you talk about the core concept about modernizing the immigration system about making it so we bring people into the economy to pay taxes so we have a legal way going forward to get the workers we need so we don't get to the same place 10 years down the line, those are things people support by wide margins."
But some groups label the newfound GOP support as skeptical. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a self-described nonprofit, public-interest organization that seeks to limit legal and illegal immigration, said Paul's makeover was geared toward vote-getting.
"Senator Paul's embrace of comprehensive immigration reform stems from his belief that amnesty will garner votes for Republicans," the group wrote on its site.