A peek at big data under immigration overhaul

A year-old deportation relief program for foreign-born, U.S.-raised students could provide a glimpse of the kinds of big-data demands that some federal agencies would have to deal with if comprehensive immigration legislation is enacted.

Big Data

A year-old deportation relief program for foreign-born, U.S.-raised students run by Citizenship and Immigration Services could provide a glimpse of the kinds of big-data demands that some federal agencies would have to deal with if comprehensive immigration legislation is enacted.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, begun by White House executive order on Aug. 15, 2012, grants temporary legal status to young people who are in the country illegally so they can continue their education uninterrupted. The program allows the students to remain in the United States for up to two years but doesn’t confer permanent lawful status.

To be eligible for the program, CIS requires student candidates to submit to biometric and criminal background checks and provide proof of their educational status and a residency timeline.

Although the program deals with a relatively small slice of the total illegal immigrant population, it could offer insight into the volume of data that immigration agencies might face if Congress passes legislation to overhaul the immigration system, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“DACA is a dress rehearsal for broader immigration reform,” she said. 

As the debate has progressed, some critics have questioned CIS’ ability to handle the duties that would accompany broad reform. Part of the Department of Homeland Security, CIS processes petitions for immigrant visas and naturalization, handles asylum and refugee applications, makes adjudicative decisions at its service centers, and manages all other functions related to immigration benefits.

“DACA offers a microcosm” of the millions of immigrants in the country illegally, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law.

The program was highly anticipated last year as debate over immigration reform heated up. Media reports at the time said some immigrants’ rights groups had more than 10,000 potential applicants waiting in lines outside their doors the day before the launch. Critics had predicted a wave of applicants that might swamp the agencies tasked with processing them.

A Brookings study analyzed the DACA applications, offering insights into the size, demographics, geographic distribution, ages and other aspects of the applicant pool.

One year into the program, the Brookings study shows that more than 400,000 people applied through June 2013. Of those applications, 72 percent were approved, 1 percent were denied, and the rest are still under review.

That volume would be dwarfed by applications for citizenship if immigration reform is enacted, Chishti said. Given that more than 11 million immigrants are in the country illegally, comprehensive reform would require a more substantial infrastructure to handle citizenship applications.

He said CIS is aware of some of the technical challenges and sought to ease the initial DACA application process by offering online applications and other electronic capabilities.

Technology has come a long way since the last comprehensive reform effort in 1986, Chishti said. For instance, newer capabilities could facilitate quicker adjudication of cases via teleconferences with applicants and speedier data transmission. Increasingly interlinked databases could allow coordination of criminal background checks and approvals, which would speed applications even more, he added.

According to the Brookings study, DACA experienced a surge in applications that tapered off after a few months. Despite an initial backlog produced by that surge, she said CIS managed to work its way through the pile as time passed.

The number of applications peaked in October 2012, when 116,223 were received, but declined to 46,386 in December 2012. Numbers hovered around 30,000 from January through March and reached a low of 18,279 in June.

As the initial spike subsided, approvals from CIS began picking up three months into the program, with an average of 46,000 issued per month from November 2012 to June 2013.

A similar study, released by the Pew Research Center on Aug. 14, shows that the program has not produced an overwhelming crush of applicants, and only about half of the eligible students applied for the program in the past year.

That kind of curve for new immigration programs isn’t unusual, Chishti said. There typically is not a huge rush at first because people are cautious about making themselves known to the government and often prefer to see how the process works and what it costs before deciding to participate.

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