DACA ruling scrambles Dreamers’ plans — yet again

By: - July 21, 2021 5:39 am
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Supporters of the DACA program rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2019. (States Newsroom file photo)

Following a favorable Supreme Court ruling last year, undocumented immigrants rushed to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which protects from deportation people who arrived in the United States as minors. They were met with monthslong agency delays and backlogs, all happening amid a pandemic.

And now their applications are indefinitely paused.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen out of Texas ruled the Obama era program illegal and blocked the Biden administration from accepting new applications. President Joe Biden quickly vowed to appeal the decision, but in the meantime the estimated 80,000 undocumented immigrants colloquially known as Dreamers remain vulnerable and frustrated at yet another hurdle in their fight for citizenship.

On Sunday, within 48 hours of Hanen’s ruling, reports emerged that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had mass cancelled biometrics appointments scheduled for people whose initial applications had been received by the agency and were set for processing. These mandatory appointments are where the federal agency collects the fingerprints, photographs and signatures of applicants.

“USCIS waited months to process (their original applications),” said Astrid Silva of Dream Big Nevada, “but they couldn’t wait until Monday to cancel appointments. They did that immediately. What kind of system is this?”

Added Silva, “If they had been on top of renewals and first-time applications, we wouldn’t be here.”

Last summer, in June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled favorably for DACA by overturning a Trump administration attempt to dismantle the program, finding the process the then-president used was flawed. USCIS had stopped accepting DACA applications in 2017 and were widely expected to begin accepting applications again.

Silva says immigration groups like Dream Big Nevada wanted to immediately mobilize to help DACA-eligible people apply because they knew the program was still at risk. But the agency appeared to drag its feet. Reports emerged nationwide that USCIS was confirming receipt of first-time applications but not processing them.

Immigration advocates sued to restart the process. They won in late 2020.

Still, delays were rampant.

In June 2021, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and others sent a letter to the acting director of USCIS questioning the long average processing time for new DACA requests, which at the time was between four and nine months. DACA renewals were similarly being processed “at an unacceptably slow rate” — up to a full year, compared to the stated timeline of 120 days.

According to USCIS data, nearly 50,000 initial applications for DACA were received between January and March of 2021. Only 763 were approved.

That application pool has since grown to 80,000. Only 1,900 had been approved.

Silva says efforts in Nevada resulted in “a few” approvals for initial applicants but “nowhere close to what was submitted.”

“What happens now?” she asks. “These are people who had been waiting months and months. They did the right thing. They did what they were told. They sent their applications in December, January… They waited the whole time. That’s the frustration. They did everything they were supposed to.”

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus on Tuesday highlighted the cancelling of the biometrics appointments, noting in a statement that many of the applicants whose appointments were abruptly canceled “have waited years to apply to the program and months for these certifications.”

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Titus urged “clarification and transparency” and for continuing the processing of materials and appointments for Dreamers whose applications were already submitted and accepted by the agency prior to the court ruling.

Titus also drew attention to the $495 DACA application fee, asking the department whether applicants will be eligible to receive a refund if the agency continues to decline to process applications.

Mayorkas, a Cuban refugee appointed by Biden, issued a statement Saturday calling the Texas ruling disappointing and said “it will not derail our efforts to protect Dreamers.” The secretary said renewals for the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients will continue, as that is allowed in Hanen’s decision.

Silva, who over the past decade has become one of Nevada’s most prominent immigration advocates, falls into that category. But she finds little comfort in any public reassurances that those currently in the program are safe. Uncertainty has been a part of her life for decades.

“It’s always ‘DACA kids’ or ‘Dreamer kids,’” she says. “I’m 33. We’ve been doing this for a very long time.”

Silva founded Dream Big Nevada and today assists an entirely new generation of undocumented immigrants whose livelihoods hang in political limbo.

She knew after last week’s ruling that her phone would ring nonstop with requests from local and national media for interviews with undocumented immigrants whose applications are in limbo. She let the people know the opportunity was there. Everyone declined, fearful of retaliation or harassment.

Silva first shared her story publicly in 2010 when she was 22. At the time, she spoke to the press anonymously, to protect her identity.

“We are back into those shadows we were supposed to be led out of years ago,” said Silva. “There’s still no solution.”

According to USCIS data, there are 11,720 DACA recipients in Nevada. The Migration Policy Institute estimates approximately 22,000 Nevadans are eligible.

Silva and others believe what’s ultimately needed is congressional action.

In his statement, Mayorkas noted that “only the passage of legislation will give full protection and a path to citizenship to DACA recipients.”

In her statement, Titus noted that the “constant back and forth in the courts is destabilizing for Dreamers and puts their safety and security in jeopardy. DACA was always meant to provide temporary protection until Congress acted to pass legislation. This is further proof that we can’t wait any longer; we need to pass a pathway to citizenship through any means necessary, including reconciliation.”

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first (and still only) Latina to serve in the Senate, in an official statement released Friday called for the passage of the American Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path for Dreamers and other immigrants to earn permanent resident status and citizenship.

That American Dream and Promise Act passed the House in March but faced an uncertain future in the Senate, which is Democratic controlled by the slimmest possible margin.

Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen in an official statement said it “is critical that we immediately pass immigration reform legislation through any means possible, including the budget reconciliation process.”

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford tweeted Friday that “Dreamers need a pathway to citizenship now” and on Saturday visited the Dream Big Nevada office to show his support.

Similarly, Democratic Rep. Susie Lee tweeted that a pathway was needed, adding “Dreamers belong in Nevada and belong in America.”

Rep. Mark Amodei, the lone Republican in Nevada’s congressional delegation, has not publicly weighed in on last week’s DACA ruling. In an emailed statement in response to a request from the Current for comment, Amodei emphasized Congress’ authority over immigration.

“It is our constitutional duty as members of Congress to move the issue towards a solution,” he said. “It’s sad and ultimately disrespectful that Congress has continued to ignore our duty. Shame on both Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, the more politics get involved, the more the issue gets screwed up. It’s probably naïve to say that Congress now wants to do what the Constitution says we are supposed to do. I’ll look forward to doing something about this when both sides can finally show up to work on the immigration issue.”

Amodei voted against the American Dream and Promise Act.

[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Rep. Mark Amodei]

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.

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