Dreamers in Limbo as Trump Officials Stall on New DACA Applications

DACA recipients and their supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Trump administration did not follow the law when it tried to end DACA. But the federal agency in charge of handling immigration applications has remained silent on how or whether it will accept new DACA requests. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Updated July 17, 2020, 2:30 p.m. PST:

A federal judge ruled Friday that the Trump administration must accept new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from young undocumented immigrants who never before had DACA’s protection.

Following last month's Supreme Court decision that the administration’s attempt to end the program was unlawful, the judge in Maryland said DACA must be restored to its status before President Donald Trump moved to end it in September 2017.

That opens the door for more than 300,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to apply for DACA’s two-year work permit and protection from deportation. New applicants would join the nearly 650,000 current DACA holders, who are entitled to renew their protections.

The ruling was welcomed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led a coalition of states in suing the federal government to preserve the program.

“From the Supreme Court down, the courts have made it clear: DACA stands, and now its doors are open to new Dreamers to apply,” Becerra said in a statement. “I urge all Dreamers to enter DACA."

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Kassandra Merlos, 24, is ready to apply to the federal government for a work permit and protection from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, something she’s been barred from for almost three years.

The UC Riverside student decided to try for DACA after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month preserved the program, which benefits undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children. She had intended to apply in the fall of 2017, she said, but the Trump administration rescinded the protections.

“It would help me so much because not only I could work and provide for myself, but I could help my parents as well financially,” Merlos said, who has lived in California since age 3. “I've been struggling, not being able to work.”

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In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Trump administration did not follow the law when it tried to end DACA. Lower courts had forced the government to process DACA renewals while the case was litigated, but did not require officials to accept new applications from people like Merlos.

Since the June 18 decision however, at least 300,000 young immigrants, who meet the requirements for DACA but have never held the protections, are now eligible to apply, according to legal scholars.

But nearly a month after the high court ruled, the federal agency in charge of handling immigration applications, has not publicly said how or whether it will accept new DACA requests. That has incensed Democratic lawmakers and sowed uncertainty among young immigrants who have waited, sometimes for years, to benefit.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has begun rejecting new petitions, according to NPR.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are continuing to review the Supreme Court ruling, said a USCIS spokesperson this week. The agency referred KQED to a defiant statement by a top official issued the day after the justices’ decision.

The “court opinion has no basis in law and merely delays the President’s lawful ability to end the illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program,” said USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow in the statement. “The constitutionality of this de facto amnesty program created by the Obama administration has been widely questioned since its inception.”

As of Thursday, the USCIS website said the agency is only accepting DACA renewal applications.

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San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, said the agency must immediately begin processing new DACA applicants.

“This is a lawless administration, I mean it’s a shocking thing,” Lofgren said, an immigration attorney. “They are not adhering to the ruling of the United States Supreme Court.”

Luis Perez, legal director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA) said his organization is weighing a lawsuit to force the Trump administration to comply. His legal team submitted a new DACA petition on behalf of a client the same day of the Supreme Court ruling.

While USCIS usually notifies applicants it has received their petition within two weeks, the client still hasn’t heard back from the agency, nearly a month later, said Perez.

CHIRLA is assisting more than a hundred first-time DACA applicants prepare their petitions, Perez said. But he’s recommending they wait to see what happens with the first application he turned in.

“So it is a very difficult time. Things are up in the air,” Perez said. “There's not a lot of guidance from anywhere. And people are just waiting, unfortunately, to hear better news. And we still haven't got that.”

The uncertainty over DACA comes as USCIS is preparing to furlough 13,400 employees, or 70% of the agency’s staff — a move that is widely expected to delay the processing of immigration benefits, including DACA. Officials with USCIS, which relies on application fees to fund most of its operations, told Congress they’ve seen a 50% drop in revenue because of the pandemic, and they need a $1.2 billion bailout to avoid the furloughs.

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Some undocumented young people who’ve considered applying for DACA are getting fed up with waiting for a chance to legally work and pursue their goals in this country.

Zara Diaz, 18, who attended UC Santa Barbara, said she has decided to move to Canada and pursue her studies there. Diaz has lived in the Bay Area city of Fremont since she was a toddler, but she doesn’t want her future to depend on the roller coaster ride of immigration politics in the U.S., she said.

“It’s like they are playing tug of war with you,” said Diaz, referring to President Obama’s creation of DACA in 2012 and President Trump’s efforts to rescind the program. She said she’s left unsure how the program will fare under future administrations.

Merlos, the UC Riverside student, said she remains hopeful DACA’s temporary protections will one day lead to a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young people like her.

“We grew up here. This is our home now,” Merlos said. “It's like: Why can we not become U.S. citizens?”

 

Tyche Hendricks contributed to this report.