'Tired of Living in This Limbo': DACA Application Backlog Puts Immigrant Lives On Hold

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Ju Hong smiles for the camera
Ju Hong, 31, who has been able to lawfully work for years under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, saw his permit expire after the federal government failed to renew it on time.  (Courtesy of Ju Hong)

Overnight, Ju Hong found himself with no job, no health insurance and a rising panic over the fact that he was basically undocumented again.

The Hayward resident had applied more than four months before to renew the two-year permit that protects him — and hundreds of thousands of other immigrants who first arrived in the U.S. as children — from deportation and allows them to lawfully work.

But unlike in previous years, the federal agency in charge of processing requests for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, failed to renew Hong’s employment authorization by the time it expired on July 7. The next day, Hong lost his job as a contracts administrator for Alameda County.

"I’m really worried and concerned, and desperately asking for help," said Hong, 31.

In contrast to former President Donald Trump, who tried to end DACA, the Biden administration has pledged to strengthen the program. But in recent months, processing delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have caused a crisis for people who've lapsed out of the protections through no fault of their own, according to advocates in California and other states.

The backlog has become so severe that a group of U.S. Senators, including California’s Sen. Alex Padilla, wrote to USCIS last month to demand a fix for what they called an "unacceptable slow rate" of processing that hurts not only impacted individuals but their employers and families as well.

The delays also mean that tens of thousands of first-time applicants — who had been prevented from applying previously by a Trump administration policy — are now shut out of the program. That’s because their applications were still pending last week when a federal judge in Texas issued an order blocking USCIS from granting the protections to new applicants.

"Thousands of new applications have once more to be put on hold, and livelihoods put on hold," said DACA recipient Dulce Garcia, a San Diego immigration attorney. "DACA allowed so many of us to apply for opportunities we never even imagined … and I want the younger folks to have that."

In his ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen declared DACA unlawful, but he stopped short of terminating the program immediately, a recognition that hundreds of thousands of individuals have relied on the program for almost a decade.

While Hanen’s order does not currently impact the roughly 616,000 people enrolled in the program, it bars the federal government from granting the protections to anyone else.

Ju Hong talking with a participant at an immigration rally.
Ju Hong speaks with attendees at an immigration protest rally. (Diego Lozano)

Nearly 100,000 people had DACA requests pending by the end of March, including 55,500 first-time applicants, according to USCIS figures.

As of May 31, the agency had received more than 62,600 initial requests, but adjudicated only over 1,900, according to USCIS Acting Director Tracy Renaud, who responded to a letter by U.S. Senators concerned about the delays.

She added that while the agency’s goal is to decide renewal applications within 120 days, 13,000 of those requests had been pending longer than that as of late last month.

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The agency was working diligently to ensure a swift resolution for the applications that had been pending for more than four months, Renaud told the Senators. But she acknowledged USCIS had had to deal with a technical problem and had shifted resources to address a staffing shortage.

An agency spokeswoman told KQED that an additional challenge was the much higher demand from first-time DACA applicants. After a three-year hiatus, the agency resumed accepting those requests last December under orders from another federal judge.

"USCIS knows that policies and procedures have a direct impact on the lives of DACA recipients and we are committed to minimizing processing delays to help facilitate access to benefits and restore confidence in the system," said spokeswoman Sharon Rummery, in a statement.

Ju Hong, a Hayward resident, signed up for DACA in 2012 when the program first started.

"It changed my life," said Hong, who was born in South Korea and grew up undocumented since age 11 in the city of Alameda.

Hong earned a master’s degree in public administration at San Francisco State University and achieved his life-long dream of a career in government. At his latest job at the Alameda County Public Health Department, Hong oversaw contracts with nonprofit organizations providing mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

A photo ID for Ju Hong
A card identifies Ju Hong as an employee of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, which includes the Public Health Department. (Courtesy of Ju Hong)

He had never had any problems renewing the two-year DACA permit, he said, until this month. After losing his job and health coverage, Hong said he felt anguished over how to cover his mortgage payments and the expensive medical treatment he needs for an auto-immune disease.

He was so frustrated, he said, that he went public with his story and contacted elected representatives, including Sen. Padilla’s office, for help to speed up his request. In the process, he heard from other immigrants in a similar situation as his, who feared losing their jobs and facing the risk of deportation, he said.

"Going back to completely out of status, it’s a scary thing. You're going back to square one," said Hong, who also serves on the leadership council at the nonprofit Immigrants Rising. "I’m really tired of living in this limbo."

On July 14, Hong said he got a call from USCIS that his permit was finally approved, and relief washed over him. He said his employer told him he can have his job back, but not until Hong holds the actual work permit in hand, which he expects in the mail this week.

"Very excited and thankful [that] because of the community work and organizing this actually happened," said Hong. "But I shouldn't even have to go through this, and no one's life should depend on the USCIS backlog, it is affecting a lot of people."

Hong and advocates said that Hanen’s ruling, along with the current delays at USCIS, point to the need for more permanent protections for DACA recipients and other so-called Dreamers. They are pinning their hopes on Democrats including a pathway to citizenship for them as part of a budget reconciliation plan in the Senate.