Facing federal confusion, Texas "Dreamers" prepare for looming DACA deadline
As federal officials continue to send mixed signals about the fate of an Obama-era program that granted relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, an upcoming deadline could determine their status in the United States.
Assuming the Trump Administration moves forward with a plan it outlined in early September to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — Oct. 5 will be a monumental day for many recipients of the program, sometimes referred to as "Dreamers": it’s the deadline to get their DACA renewal applications accepted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or risk deportation.
“Trump has effectively already killed the DACA program,” said Sheridan Aguirre, a recipient of the program and field communications manager for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth led organization in the country that advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families. “Right now, a lot of immigrant young people and their families are concerned.”
Aguirre is one of roughly 124,000 Texans now covered under DACA — which gives them protection from deportation and a renewable, two-year work permit. DACA now covers more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger when the program began in June 2012.
However, the clock is now ticking. According to several immigration attorneys and advocates, the renewal applications must be perfect to avoid the risk of rejection before the crucial cut off.
Frances Valdez, an immigration attorney for United We Dream, said that what people often think are minor paperwork mistakes may lead to a denied DACA application. She said applicants should have a copy of previous DACA applications to make sure they’re consistent with renewal applications, bring the correct filing fee — which is $495 — and make copies of everything they send in with their renewal application.
“Inconsistencies could lead to requests for more information,” Valdez said. “Depending on the inconsistency, it could lead to denial.”
According to Jackie Watson, an immigrants’ rights advocate and an attorney at Walker Gates Vela in Austin, there’s no easy fix for any denials that come after the Oct. 5 deadline.
“You have to make sure the whole application is very precisely filled out and accepted because if it’s not accepted, you’re done,” Watson said.
In September, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump Administration planned to phase out DACA after six months. Several days later, President Donald Trump offered conflicting statements on the state of a possible deal with Democratic leadership that would both extend DACA and beef up border security.
“As a person who is undocumented and is a DACA recipient, I had to wake up to news alerts and tweets basically deciding the future of my life,” Aguirre said. “Overall, it was a really cruel decision ... and it’s been really difficult to maneuver through that.”
Aguirre, 23, said he came to the U.S. in 1996 with his mom when he was a year old.
“My dad was already working between the U.S. and Mexico as a migrant worker. Right after I was born, he decided to do that once again, and my mom didn’t want us to be separated ... so she decided to emigrate to the U.S. so we could be reunited,” he said.
He said his family settled in Fort Worth, then he moved to Austin in 2012 to attend the University of Texas.
Aguirre said his DACA was recently re-approved through 2019 — what he called his third chance to “carry out my life in safety and feel at home in this country.” But those whose DACA protection expires between Sept. 5 and March 5, 2018 — six months out from the deadline Trump outlined — have less than two weeks to get their application filed.
To be eligible to renew an application now, DACA recipients must prove they didn’t leave the United States on or after Aug. 15, 2012, without permission from USCIS, have continuously resided in the United States since submitting their most recently approved DACA request and have not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or three or more misdemeanors.
“If you have had any new ... arrests, detention, or convictions, you should not move forward with a renewal before speaking with an immigration lawyer,” Valdez said. “Criminal issues could make you ineligible. An individual could even wind up in immigration court proceedings.”
The administration’s new policy has cut off others from DACA protection altogether. DACA recipients with expiration dates of March 6 or later will not be able to apply to renew it. And the federal government stopped accepting first-time DACA applications on Sept. 5.
“You’re turning around these people’s worlds with this, for one,” Watson said. “They’re not going to be able to get any more driver’s licenses, and they’re not going to get any more work permits.”
Watson said she fears that current DACA beneficiaries will be unemployed once their permits expire. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, roughly 700,000 workers could lose their jobs over the next several years should DACA be repealed.
Despite the looming federal deadline, Aguirre said he hopes DACA recipients in Texas realize that they’re not alone.
“Even though right now the program has ended, we’re going to continue to support and heal one another,” Aguirre said. “We have people throughout the country standing at our side, even though the path ahead may be difficult. We’re still here.”