During this past summer, Ana Estrada kept going online to check the status of her renewal application for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
It was the fifth time she was renewing her DACA status, which allows her to lawfully work in the country, but this time she worried about delays related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was frustrating logging in every day and seeing my case just stuck in the same place,” she said. “They weren’t touching it at all.”
Then for eight days in August, her status expired before her application was eventually approved Aug. 24, Estrada said.
The lapse led to her termination at her warehouse job, she said. Weeks later, she got her job back but as a new hire.
That meant she lost the vacation time she had earned for this year and the free health insurance she got because of how long she’d worked for the company, she said.
In Chicago, other DACA holders have also had their statuses temporarily expire because of renewal delays, which has affected their ability to lawfully work. Some immigration advocacy groups have resorted to creating public campaigns to ensure a person’s DACA is renewed, which young immigrants have to do every two years. Across the country, there have been other DACA holders who have faced delays in their renewals.
“Do they even think about us?” Estrada said about the federal government. “Does it cross their mind everything that we are losing? Once it expires, they are not able to hire you anywhere. The thing that was going through my mind — how long am I going to be unemployed for?”
There are more than 590,000 young immigrants with DACA protections, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Illinois, there are 30,880 DACA holders.
In June, there were more than 84,000 pending DACA renewal requests, according to the latest data from USCIS. It’s currently taking between three and three-and-a-half months to process DACA renewals, according to data from USCIS.
In a statement, USCIS said there weren’t any extraordinary processing delays associated with DACA renewals, saying the federal agency’s goal is to process the requests within 120 days. The agency said it was trying to reduce the overall processing times for all types of applications.
“Agency personnel have been tasked with addressing outstanding processing issues and making changes to underlying procedures to achieve new efficiencies while ensuring the integrity and security of the immigration system,” the agency said in a statement.
For Estrada, the delays underscore the uncertainty surrounding the program meant for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. While the program has allowed her to lawfully work, she has felt hindered by the career opportunities she could pursue because her immigration status is temporary.
“It would help a lot if they do something permanent,” she said. “It would open a lot of doors for us.”
Dulce Ortiz, the executive director of Mano-A-Mano Family Resource Center in suburban Round Lake Park, said DACA holders have waited three to four months for their renewals without any updates, leading them to become nervous.
“We have been getting information that applications we’ve submitted in May; we still haven’t heard anything,” Ortiz said. “It puts a lot of stress on our community members and on our team.”
The resource center has resorted to reaching out to local congressional offices so their staff can submit an information request to USCIS — to the get the status of a case, Ortiz said.
Chicago’s HANA Center, which works with the Korean American community, has started campaigns that include petitions and encouraging people to call USCIS to push for DACA renewal applications to be processed, said Young Woon Han, a senior organizing manager at the center.
The center recently rallied around attorney Sam Sung Cheol Park, who volunteers at the HANA Center’s legal clinic, as he waited for his DACA authorization to be renewed. In September, his DACA expired for a day as community members and previous law professors pushed almost daily until USCIS processed his application.
“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, nor are these remedies and resolutions usually available for other people that are experiencing what I’m experiencing,” Park said. “And there’s a lot of us. I’m lucky that I was in a place and had the community support to get this worked out, but I think we really need to highlight what’s happening at USCIS.”
The HANA Center also led a recent campaign to get Hwangchan Yu’s DACA renewed. His DACA status expired for a few days in September after his appointment to collect his biometrics — part of the renewal process — was set for a date after his status expired, he said. The delay was tied to his driver’s license renewal, so he couldn’t drive while awaiting the renewal.
The 26-year-old, who works at the HANA Center as a suburban organizer, said it was frustrating because he submitted his application in March hoping that would be enough time.
“People tell immigrants all the time, ‘Get in line and go by the books,’” Yu said. “Well, we’ve done all those things, we’ve gotten in line, we’ve gotten in ahead of time. So what line are people talking about?”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.