BY ALICIA A. CALDWEL, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Just three weeks after the Obama administration started accepting applications from young undocumented immigrants seeking to avoid deportation and get a work permit, the government already has approved some of the roughly 72,000 applications the government has received.

The Homeland Security Department said Tuesday that a small group of applications has been approved and those immigrants are being notified this week about the decision. The department did not say how many applications had been approved.

The first wave of approvals comes months head of DHS' own internal estimates of how long the application process for the administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could take – and less than 60 days before the Nov. 6 elections. According to an internal DHS document obtained by The Associated Press, the department's Citizenship and Immigration Services had estimated that each application could take several months to be completed.

"Following a thorough, individualized case review, USCIS has now begun notifying individuals of the determination on their deferral requests," DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said in a statement. He said about 72,000 applications have been received since the program's Aug. 15 start.

DHS said background checks, including finger prints checks, are being conducted on each immigrant before an application can be approved. The average wait time for approval is expected to be about four months to six months.

Most applications for immigration benefits take several months for to process. In certain circumstances, people can pay extra fees to speed up the process. There currently is no such option for deferred action applications.

President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on June 15 that young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, are high school graduates or are in college or have served in the military would be eligible to apply to avoid deportation for up to two years and get a work permit. The immigrants also could not have a serious criminal record.

Applicants for deferred deportation must pay a $465 paperwork fee that is expected to cover the cost of processing the work permit and for finger printing. DHS has estimated that as many as 1.04 million immigrants could apply to avoid being deported in the program's first year, with about 890,000 being eligible immediately. According to the DHS document, it could cost between $467 million and $585 million to process applications in the first two years of the program, with revenues from fees estimate at $484 million. That means the cost to the government could range from a gain of $17 million to a loss of more than $101 million.

The policy change came just months before what is shaping up to be a tight presidential election. Wooing Hispanic voters has been considered key to helping Obama win a second term.

The plan to halt deportations for as many as 1.7 million undocumented immigrants closely mirrors the failed DREAM Act, a bill that would have provided a path to legalization for many of the same immigrants expected to benefit from the government' deferred action policy. The new policy does not provide legal status for the immigrants, but instead puts off possible deportation for up to two years.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has not said what he would do with Obama's policy if he is elected. He has previously pledged to veto the DREAM Act should it cross his desk. DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

Republicans have uniformly criticized Obama's policy, as well as previous DHS decisions to stop deporting many undocumented immigrants who do not have criminal records or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has derided the policy as "backdoor amnesty."

"It's astounding that the president's administration can move so quickly to grant work authorization to undocumented immigrants yet his jobs council hasn't met in over eight months to find solutions to put unemployed Americans back to work," Smith said Tuesday. "Such a quick turnaround for these amnesty applications raises serious concerns about fraud and a lack of thorough background checks. President Obama and his administration continue to put undocumented immigrants ahead of the interests of the American people."

Last month a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sued the department in federal court in Dallas and accused the administration violating federal law and forcing ICE employees to break the law by not arresting certain undocumented immigrants. Napolitano and ICE Director John Morton are named as defendants.

An informal adviser to Romney on immigration, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, filed the suit on behalf of the agents.

"It places ICE agents in an untenable position where their political superiors are ordering them to violate federal law," Kobach said at the time. "If they follow federal law, they will be disciplined by their superiors."

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Session, R-Ala., sent a letter to Morton questioning the new policy and how it is being implemented. He cited reports of immigration officers being threatened with punishment for trying to enforce immigration laws, an allegation outlined in Kobach's suit.

"Your job is to carry out the mission of your agency and support the officers on the front lines," Sessions wrote. "Your apparent failure to support your officers in these incidents and your evident lack of concern for the administration's decision to nullify the very laws they were sworn to enforce raises serious questions about your ability to lead this agency."

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