What the Senate’s failure on immigration means for the future of DACA

The date March 5 looms over the immigration debate.

That’s the deadline that President Trump set last September when he announced that his administration was winding down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected young unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work legally in the United States.

Politicians and the press have repeatedly cited March 5 as an “expiration date” of sorts to force Congress to finally find a solution for the 690,000 undocumented immigrants covered by the program.

But DACA recipients’ work permits don’t expire en masse on March 5.

The way the program actually works is far more complicated — and with it looking vanishingly unlikely that Congress will pass a bill before the March 5 “deadline,” understanding what DACA will look like after that date is more important than ever.

What March 5 means

The short answer is: not a ton.

The way some people talk about the March 5 “expiration,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that the hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants protected under DACA will all lose their protections after that date — or, worse, that they’ll all be rounded up for deportation. But that’s not the case.

Politically, March 5 was important: a clear deadline that President Trump gave Congress to deal with the fate of DACA recipients. It’s all but official that Congress has failed to meet it.

But as policy — in terms of what DACA meant for immigrants — March 5 just marked an inflection point, at which the unraveling of DACA, up to that point relatively slow, would get faster.


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Even without action from Congress before March 5, DACA’s end really started on September 5, 2017, when the Trump administration stopped accepting new applications for the program. Since October, approximately 122 immigrants each day have had their DACA-issued work permits expire because they were unable to apply in time for renewals.

After March 5, that number could go up to 1,000 immigrants a day. No one really knows how many immigrants currently hold work permits that expire on March 6, March 7, and each day after that (except the government, which isn’t releasing that information). A very rough estimate — based on the number of people whose DACA is set to expire between March 5 and August 2019 — suggests that the pace of expiring permits would be around 970 a day.

But due to some recent court decisions, it might not end up being that many.

A pair of federal court orders — one issued in California in January, and one issued in New York in February — have slowed DACA’s unraveling by allowing DACA recipients to apply for two-year renewals again. As a result, it’s actually impossible to tell how many immigrants will lose work permits on March 6 — and how many will have new ones that last through March 2020 or later.

The courts have probably kept DACA alive for months — but probably won’t be able to keep it alive forever

In January, a federal judge in California issued an injunction against the Trump administration’s wind-down of DACA, and told US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) to make a reasonably timely plan to resume accepting renewal applications. The Trump administration is appealing the judge’s order — but because it’s not seeking a stay, there’s no chance for the order to be overturned in the immediate future.

In the meantime, a second judge, in New York, also issued an injunction — meaning that even if one of the two orders got overturned, USCIS would have to keep accepting and processing renewals.

The administration has asked to skip the Ninth Circuit and appeal the California order directly to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is set to consider the request in a closed-door session Friday; an announcement about whether it will take the case could come soon afterward.

It’s extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court would hear the case before April and rule on it before the last weeks of the term in June — and that’s if it grants the administration’s unusual request.

In the meantime, DACA won’t be fully operational as it was before Trump’s September 2017 decision. Unauthorized immigrants who turned 15 after September 5 of last year still won’t be able to apply, and neither will immigrants who would have qualified for DACA but couldn’t afford a $495 application fee (or who didn’t apply for some other reason). But immigrants who had DACA and lost it, or are in danger of losing it, will be able to apply for renewals — and those renewals will, theoretically, be processed and granted normally.

And even if the Supreme Court (or a lower court) fully overturns the judges’ orders and allows the administration to shut down DACA again, the permits it’s handed out in the interim will still be valid.

No matter when exactly DACA is officially closed off (again), it will die slowly, a thousand deaths a day. There won’t be any handy (if artificial) “deadline” to point to as the date that Congress needs to act. Congress will need, if it acts, to somehow act on its own.

What this means for DACA recipients

Here’s how DACA is working right now:

  • Approximately 122 immigrants each day, since October, have had their DACA-issued work permits expire because they were unable to apply in time for renewals (after the Trump administration suddenly shortened the application window in September). That’ll add up to about 22,000 immigrants by the time we get to March 5.
  • Approximately 668,000 immigrants have work permits issued under DACA that won’t expire until March 5 or later.
  • Both of these groups of immigrants — as well as immigrants whose DACA expired between September 5, 2016, and September 5, 2017 — can apply for a two-year renewal (thanks to the court order issued in January). An unknown number of them have already applied.
  • As far as we know, USCIS has not yet approved any renewal applications and sent out any two-year permits since applications reopened in January. This isn’t surprising — even when DACA was in full swing, USCIS recommended that applicants give them 90 to 120 days to process a renewal application. So it is likely that some DACA recipients are watching their work permits expire while their renewals wait in the processing queue.
  • Immigrants whose existing DACA permits have expired haven’t been rounded up en masse by ICE. However, some have been turned over to ICE agents and put in deportation proceedings.

Here’s what will happen after March 5:

  • As many as 1,000 immigrants are currently set to lose their work permits each day after March 5, in the absence of USCIS sending out any renewals. But …
  • Any immigrant worried about the loss of her work permit will be able to apply for a two-year renewal, at least until the court order issued in January is struck down. Some of them have already done so.
  • Because it’s not yet clear how long USCIS is taking to process DACA renewals, it’s not clear how much risk DACA recipients run of losing their existing work permits while they wait for the new ones to come in. If USCIS starts sending out renewed work permits before March 5, it will probably reduce the number of people losing their work permits each day by some amount; it’s more likely, given processing time, that the pace of people losing DACA will stay around 1,000 through April, and would then slow as USCIS starts sending new work permits to renewal applicants.
  • The lion’s share of DACA recipients will still be safe for several more months. Approximately 579,000 immigrants have work permits issued under DACA that won’t expire until June 6 or later. At this pace, it would take until February 2019 for more than half of DACA recipients to lose their protections — and that pace doesn’t reflect any of the renewals that could be issued under the court order.
  • The Trump administration has said clearly that ICE won’t actively target people whose DACA work permits have expired en masse. But it’s said just as clearly that if ICE agents happen to come across immigrants who have lost DACA protections, they’re just as vulnerable to arrest or deportation as anyone else.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been in a state of uncertainty and anxiety since September 2017 — and even earlier, as DACA recipients wondered what President Trump would do to them. Congress still has the power to alleviate that uncertainty. But if it couldn’t do so without the impetus of a deadline, it may feel even less urgency without one.