In the six weeks after a federal judge in New York ordered the Trump administration to restore Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and accept first-time applicants along with renewals, more than 31,000 applications were submitted, according to government documents filed with the court. But it’s unlikely any have yet been approved because the process normally takes a few months and there seem to be longer delays now due to the pandemic.
In an email to immigration attorneys, the agency in charge of DACA—US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—said it could take four-to-six weeks for applicants to get a receipt as “a result of COVID-19 restrictions, an increase in filings, current postal service volume and other external factors.”
Nonetheless, immigrant advocates said they are happy to see things are finally moving forward following three years of litigation over President Donald Trump’s efforts to end the program.
“I think it shows a great demand,” said Jessica Young, supervising immigration attorney at Make the Road New York, which was one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. She said she expects more immigrants will apply, once they gather evidence to satisfy the program’s many eligibility requirements.
DACA was created in 2012 by former president Barack Obama’s administration and grants protection from deportation plus work authorization to so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled President Trump’s administration violated the law when it tried to end the program in 2017. Acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf then created a new version of DACA. But he didn’t allow anyone to apply for the first time, and renewals were granted for just one year at a time instead of two. He also made it harder for DACA recipients to travel abroad.
The November court ruling required the government to accept first-time applications and roll back the restrictions on travel. Most of the new applications between November 14th and December 31st were for renewals. But there were 2,713 initial applications.
It’s difficult to sort out whether any first-time or renewal applications were approved since then. Documents filed with the court show only 295 “initial” applications were adjudicated, with 174 approvals and 121 denials. USCIS rejected 369 applications—meaning they were returned and never processed.
Young said USCIS probably hadn’t even gotten to the first-time applicants, because approval takes several months. Her own clients have yet to receive appointments for fingerprinting, the next step in the process.
Instead, she suspects most “initial” applicants that were fully adjudicated came from people whose DACA status had lapsed for a year and then reapplied because they’re also considered initial applicants. “The terminology they use is very confusing,” Young explained.
Nonetheless, she said, the numbers show “how many folks continue to be interested and then want to take advantage of the benefits of DACA.”
A total of 28,821 renewals for DACA were received between November 14th and December 31st. In that same time period the government adjudicated 62,170 renewals, of which 61,844 were approved. Those had probably been submitted prior to the court ruling.
Melina Batista, an 18-year-old freshman at SUNY Old Westbury, applied for DACA in November and is still waiting to hear back on the next steps. “I was not the one to go down and check the mail,” prior to applying, she said, but “now I am every day.”
Batista said she’s lived in Queens since coming to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic with her mother when she was four. She wanted to apply for DACA in 2017 but couldn’t because of Trump’s actions. She tried again over the summer after the Supreme Court ruling, but was denied as a first-time applicant and joined the lawsuit by Make the Road New York.
With DACA, she said, she’ll be able to work to help pay for school and household expenses. She also hopes the program will improve and even offer a path to citizenship after president-elect Joe Biden takes office. “I do feel that things will be easier for us,” she said.
The tech giant Google also announced it will pay the application fees for more than 500 immigrants seeking DACA, through a grant to the organization United We Dream. The filing fee for each application costs $495.
However, there is still one more lawsuit over the legality of DACA by nine states including Texas.
Meanwhile, DACA applicants will have to wait longer than usual. The government’s filing with the New York federal court referred to immigration forms arriving faster than clerks can enter the information into the electronic system.
Hasan Shafiqullah, who runs the immigration law unit for the Legal Aid Society, said it used to take only two weeks to get a receipt. “But adjudications are just going slow across the board.”