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Feds slow to process new DACA applications, creating 55k case backlog

By: - July 6, 2021 10:54 am

People march for immigrant rights in Los Angeles in September 2017. Photo by Molly Adams | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The federal government has been slow to approve thousands of applications it received this year for people who had been blocked from protections granted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for more than two years.

Between January and March, almost 50,000 people sent first-time DACA applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but just 763 — or 1.5% — were approved. Now, there’s a backlog of over 55,000 initial DACA applications, USCIS data shows. 

For more than two years following the Trump administration’s 2017 announcement that it would phase out DACA, people eligible for the program who wanted to apply for the first time were barred from doing so.  

But after a court ruled that Trump’s government couldn’t end DACA as planned, USCIS announced in December that it would accept initial DACA applications, opening the door for thousands of immigrants to temporary protection from deportation and a renewable work permit.

Karina Ruiz, director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said the organization has helped more than 300 people in the state apply for DACA since December. But fewer than 10 already have the work permit, she said. 

She estimates it’s taking about five to six months for first-time DACA applicants to receive an approval letter, compared to a month prior to the 2017 closure. 

Avondale resident Michael Browder applied for DACA at the end of December and said he received his approval letter in June. Still, he doesn’t yet fully benefit from DACA. That’s because when DACA applicants are approved, they first have to go through a fingerprint screening before their two-year work permits are issued. 

Browder, who’s 30, said he hopes that enrolment in DACA will allow him to apply for another benefit called advanced parole, which allows DACA beneficiaries to leave the country for educational, employment, or humanitarian purposes and return. While DACA is not an immigration status, the advance parole benefit is granted to allow those with protections under the 2012 program to travel outside the US and return. Advance parole for DACA recipients was also cancelled under Trump. 

Browder left Mexico when he was 10, but hopes to return to see his grandparents. 

“They are getting older, I talk to them often,” he said. “What if something happens and I don’t get to see them one last time?”

USCIS has said the pandemic, coupled with greater demand and limited capacity, are contributing to DACA processing delays. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois called the slow rate of processing DACA “simply unacceptable, Roll Call reported. 

Ruiz called on the Biden administration to shift resources from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the agency that arrests, detains and deports immigrants — to USCIS, which adjudicates immigration benefits like visas, green cards and citizenship.

“They really need to think about shifting some of the resources to make sure things like DACA, citizenship, and even asylum-seeker’s processes are expedited,” Ruiz said. “These young people are waiting to get their DACA to be able to work and support their family after this pandemic.”

As of March 31, there are about 23,000 residents in Arizona who have DACA, according to USCIS data.  

Who can apply for DACA

To be eligible for the program, applicants must:

  • Have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;
  • Arrived in the U.S. before turning 16;
  • Have continuously lived in the US since June 15, 2007 up to present time;
  • Were physically present in the US on June 15, 2012; 
  • Have no lawful status (like a visa or green card);
  • Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and
  • Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor,or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

DACA applicants have to pay $495 to be considered for the program. The total cost might be higher if applicants consult or work with a lawyer. Applicants also have to be at least 15 years old to apply.

Applying for DACA is a document-heavy process

According to advocates, one of the most challenging parts of applying for DACA is the document-gathering process to prove applicants were in the country on June 12, 2012 and have lived in the country continuously since June 15, 2007 to the day the application is filed.

Browder said he didn’t apply for DACA when he was younger because he wasn’t informed about the program. Another barrier for him to first apply to DACA was also the evidence requisite. 

Last year, he gathered a document for every month since 2007 that shows he has lived in the US, he said. School records, medical records, social media posts, and receipts are examples of documents to support that requirement. 

He encourages anyone who can to apply for DACA. 

“Do it, it’s a great opportunity,” Browder said. “We don’t know when the program is going to end, or how long they are going to keep it for.”

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