Officially, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which allowed 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children or teenagers to receive protection from deportation and work permits — ends on March 5, 2018.
In practice, the doors of the program are about to slam shut.
No one has been able to apply for new protections under the program since the Trump administration officially announced its recession of DACA on September 5. Those eligible for one last two-year extension of DACA — those who would otherwise lose their protections before March 5 — have to have their application (and a $495 check) to a government office by the end of the day Thursday.
Exhausted advocates spent September tracking down tens of thousands of those immigrants, trying to do several months’ worth of work in a matter of weeks.
“We had to hit the red-alert panic button,” says Josh Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Advocates feel they’ve done everything they can. But they feel they’ve gotten no help from the Trump administration, and they’re worried that ultimately their best hasn’t been enough.
As of Wednesday, on the eve of the deadline, US Citizenship and Immigration Services reported to a third party that 111,565 of the approximately 154,000 who were eligible to apply for one last extension of their protections had done so.
That means renewals are picking up as the deadline approaches: according to previous USCIS data, 6,000 applications came in between September 28 and October 2, and 7,500 came in between October 2 and 4.
But 42,500 applications — with one day to go — were still missing.
Congress is taking a leisurely approach to the fate of the DREAMers; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) says he and the president agreed not to consider any legalization bills until they’ve passed tax reform, while key legislators like Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are drawing up their list of demands on border and interior security.
While Congress works slowly, and the administration shrugs, tens of thousands of DREAMers may find out too late that their own personal DACA deadline has already come.
“We have to process six months of enrollments in one month!”
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the formal announcement on September 5 that DACA’s days were numbered, immigration advocates had their work cut out for them.
In the days after the DACA announcement, the Trump administration disclosed that 154,000 immigrants would be eligible for one last DACA extension as long as they applied by October 5.
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In Kansas City, says Nubia Urena of the Kansas-Missouri DREAM Alliance, there were two events held the day of the announcement: “We had kind of a support group for those who took it really hard, because some of us did, and then we also had a rally for those who were like pissed, because some of us were that as well.”
But shortly thereafter, Illinois’ Hoyt says, it hit advocates like a bucket of ice water: “Oh my god! We have to process six months of enrollments in one month!”
Advocates did some rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations: To get 154,000 applications processed, they’d have to do 214 applications every hour. Even in a best-case scenario, advocates concluded, they’d miss 40,000 DREAMers.
Some of those recipients were already planning to get their applications in; In fact, 58,000 of them had already applied before September 5.
But the Trump administration did nothing to tell people who thought they had more time that the timeline had changed.
Some DACA recipients got letters from USCIS before September 5 reminding them that they had 180 more days to reapply — and recommending they reapply in the next three months. But USCIS didn’t send out any corrections to warn those immigrants that if they followed the instructions from the earlier letter, they’d find themselves locked out.
Community groups put together free DACA clinics. National groups (including United We Dream and CLINIC) solicited donations for “scholarship funds” to cover the $495 fee for applicants who didn’t have it on hand, then sent those donations as grants to the local groups processing applications. United We Dream set to work putting together graphics and videos for its Facebook page; some community organizations, like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, even bought targeted social media posts to help reach immigrants who wouldn’t otherwise know. And litigators tried to pressure the Trump administration to relent by extending the deadline.
Most of those efforts succeeded. The last, and arguably most crucial, did not.
Some clinics have been overwhelmed — while others have been half-empty
United We Dream raised enough to cover 1,400 application fees. Some state and local governments (including the state of Rhode Island) agreed to foot the bill for any DACA recipient who applied for a renewal in time. Local Mexican consulates paid the $495 fees for renewing immigrants who were Mexican nationals.
“We’ve done everything that we can,” says Juanita Monsalve, digital director of United We Dream.
When Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition held clinics on Saturday and Sunday, Erika Blum estimates 25 volunteers were marshaled to help check applications — but only a handful of DACA recipients actually showed up. An attempt to advertise the clinic on Facebook Live flopped.
“It was a reminder,” says Blum of CIRC, “that while we have so many people activated around the state we don’t have contact with the majority of DACA recipients.”
In downtown Kansas City, Kansas, on the other hand, outreach worked almost too well. Last Tuesday, El Centro (a Kansas City-based community organization) held a clinic starting at 5:30. “People started coming into the office starting at 4:50,” says Urena — before any volunteers had shown up — “and I was not prepared.”
The clinic ended up processing 15 applications in an hour.
“I have my lead attorney trying to triple- and four-check every single application,” says Urena. “We’re all tired as hell.”
Some DACA recipients who showed up were actually ineligible to renew — their work permits are set to expire too late.
When Urena explained to a few recipients that the clinic couldn’t help them, “they were like, ‘Can we just try?’”
“The administration should just be ashamed”
In mid-September, advocacy groups and Democrats in Congress started asking the Trump administration to extend the renewal deadline to January 15 (which would still give USCIS six weeks to process applications before the official end of DACA on March 5).
Even if the administration wasn’t willing to extend the deadline, advocates had other suggestions for “simple, modest things,” Hoyt says, “to prevent real pain among DACA recipients.” USCIS could have sent letters out to DACA recipients who were eligible to renew — especially those who’d gotten letters before September 5, recommending they renew in the next few months — telling them about the new timeline.
Or it could have set up stations at USCIS processing offices where applicants could turn in their applications, guaranteeing that they would be received in time — rather than having to keep their fingers crossed that the postal service wouldn’t take more than a couple of days to deliver an application.
The government did none of these things.
“The administration should just be ashamed,” says Hoyt. “It’s stomach-churning.”
At a court hearing in New York in mid-September, government lawyers initially said that extending the deadline was under “active consideration” — only to say, in late September, that after review “at the highest levels,” they were going to keep the October 5 deadline.
Judge Nicholas Garaufis was livid, calling the decision “heartless.”
That same day, Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke was closely questioned during a hearing by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) about why there hadn’t been an extension of the renewal deadline — and played ignorant. “We have had no requests,” said Duke.
How effective this renewal sprint has been won’t become clear until it’s over. The big picture will come into view soon after October 5, when USCIS releases the final numbers of how many of the 154,000 DACA recipients applied in time.
The efficacy on a human level might not be known until January and February of 2018, when the immigrants most likely not to have applied on their own are most at risk for losing their work permits and deportation protections.
It would be merely a preview of what might happen after March 5, if Congress fails to act, when hundreds of DACA recipients would lose their protections every day.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect DACA renewal application data from October 4, provided to Vox by a third party.