SALT LAKE CITY — Fear of immigration officials is keeping young illegal immigrants away from the federal government's deferred action program, with only 745 people applying in Utah during the first month of the program.
Salt Lake City immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright told fellow members of the Utah Commission on Immigration and Migration on Wednesday that the response to the program, which would temporarily hold off their removal or deportation and allow illegal immigrants to work if they meet certain criteria, is "tepid."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services started accepting applications for deferred action Aug. 15.
Wheelwright said some young people remain afraid of revealing their presence to federal immigration authorities. They fear the program could be rescinded because it was not created in federal statute. The program was created under the Department of Homeland Security.
Others worry, despite assurances of confidentiality from the agency, that the information will be used to deport undocumented family members.
As an attorney, Wheelwright said his immediate reaction to the program was to dissuade clients from applying because "it's too temporary."
Wheelwright has also had to tell many clients in recent years that his hands were tied in assisting them with immigration matters due to stalled immigration reforms in Congress. In that respect, he's had a change of heart because deferred action "has the potential to help a very narrow group of people."
Roman Gonzalez, a 2012 graduate of Copper Hills High School who has applied for deferred action, said he believes the potential benefits of the program outweigh any concerns.
Gonzalez said he plans to enroll in Salt Lake Community College in January. He's currently working odd jobs to save for college.
"You just have to take a chance," Gonzalez said Wednesday. "It would be better in the future for you and your kids if you get a career and you're better able to support your family."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who supports the deferred action approach absent meaningful immigration reform, said applications are lower than he had anticipated.
"I think there's a lot of uncertainty," Shurtleff said. "I think people want to see who will be the president, whether they want to apply."
Earlier this month, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he would not rescind the program.
Others fear they or their loved ones could be negatively impacted.
"I think many people are afraid to be on that list, afraid they will end up deported," Shurtleff said.
"Deferred action" is not legal status, Wheelwright said. It means that federal immigration authorities will defer removal actions as an act of prosecutorial discretion for a two-year period.
Mexican nationals are the largest group nationwide to apply, followed by El Salvadorans, South Koreans, Hondurans and Guatemalans.
Nationwide, about 82,000 people applied in the first month of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but few have been approved.
Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney specializing in employment matters, said estimates of people potentially eligible to apply range from 800,000 to 1.8 million nationwide.
While some young, undocumented people may balk at turning over information to the federal government, others may be holding off because the work permits extended under the program only have a two-year lifespan, and applicants are not granted a legal status, he said.
Moreover, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has adjudicated very few cases thus far.
"At the end of the day, fewer than 50 applications been approved," Tsai said.
Cost and ability to assemble the needed documents may be impediments to others, he said.
The application fee is $465, and there is no appeals process if an applicant is denied.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is limited to undocumented immigrants under 31 years old who have come to the United States before they were 16. They must be able to document that they have lived in the United States continuously since June 15, 2007, are in school, have earned a high school diploma or have been honorably discharged from the military. They must also pass a criminal background check.