Less than 15 percent of eligible young immigrants have applied for a program that would allow them to remain in the country for two years, with the possibility of getting a work permit.
Why the tepid response from 1.3 million people, about 100,000 of them in Florida?
Fear and politics, say immigration attorneys.
Under deferred action — a program of the Obama administration that took effect in August — immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16, currently enrolled in school, graduated from high school or served in the military and do not have an extensive criminal record can stay for two years without the fear of deportation.
They are also eligible for a work permit, which can lead to a Social Security number. In Florida, immigrants with work permits can obtain a driver's license.
But turnout has been slow.
Some Tampa Bay immigration lawyers attribute it to fear of being deported. The six-page form asks applicants for an address and documents to prove they have lived in the country.
"They do have a lot of concerns. Keep in mind, they are in the country undocumented," said Tampa immigration lawyer Christian Zeller. "Deferred action is just that. It's not an immigration status."
Mitt Romney's recent announcement that he would shut down deferred action if elected president could trigger a change in the number of young immigrants applying for the program, local immigration officials said.
The Republican presidential nominee says he won't revoke deferred action waivers or work permits approved under President Barack Obama, but would eliminate the rest of the program and replace it with "permanent reform of our broken immigration system," a Romney spokesman said.
Some immigrants, seeing this as a last chance to avoid deportation, might still apply. Others may wait and see who is elected, lawyers said.
"I would hope that it would spur people to file as quickly as possible," said Arturo Rios Jr., a St. Petersburg lawyer.
Nanci Palacios, co-founder of United We Dream Tampa Bay, an immigration reform group, said she has friends holding off on applying to see results for the first deferred action approvals.
Besides fearing the outcome of the election, Palacios said, they are studying for a GED to qualify for deferred action, or simply can't afford to apply. The fee is $465.
Palacios and her family moved to Tampa illegally from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was 6. She has already submitted her deferred action papers.
"Why not? What's the worst that can happen?" Palacios said. "People are so desperate. They want this so bad."
Andy Strickland, another St. Petersburg immigration lawyer, said it doesn't matter which presidential candidate wins.
"Even if Obama is re-elected, there's no guarantee that he'll extend deferred action again," he said.
In an interview with Univision last month, Romney said he was not in favor of a "mass deportation" effort against undocumented immigrants and would seek to create a system that includes granting resident status to those who serve in the military.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Friday that about 180,000 people have applied for the Obama administration's program. As of Wednesday, 4,591 applications had been approved. Those people will also get permission to work.
"It's just so hard to fathom," Rios said. "Why would you want to pull a program like this where it's truly not hurting anybody?"
Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713, or [email protected]