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DACA recipients, facing long waits for renewal, risk losing their jobs

High school students and members of the public rallied in support of DACA in Los Angeles in 2019.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s been three months since Miguel has been able to work at his job as a sustainability and inclusion manager at a professional services firm in San Francisco.

The 32-year-old Philippines native, who asked that The Times not identify his company or use his full name, wasn’t fired or laid off. Instead he was placed on temporary unpaid leave — all because of a bureaucratic backlog in processing work-permit applications for participants in DACA, the Obama-era program that offered deportation protection to immigrants without lawful status who arrived as youth.

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program must reapply every two years for protection and work permits. But many of the roughly 530,000 current DACA holders have recently reported lengthy processing delays.

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For some, like Miguel, that has meant a months-long unemployment as he and his employer awaited the necessary paperwork. The delays have cost others their jobs, immigrant advocates say.

“The whole situation just brings me back to imagining the worst-case scenario,” he said, referring to fears of one day being deported to a country he hasn’t considered home since age 7. “Recently I went into a pretty depressive state as a result of all those ‘what ifs.’”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services aims to process each renewal fairly and efficiently, said spokesman Matthew Bourke. But he acknowledged that some DACA recipients have experienced processing times beyond 120 days in recent months.

He blamed delays on technology updates, but said the issues have been resolved and that the majority of DACA renewal requests are processed within the 120-day goal period. Agency data show the median processing time doubled from two weeks in fiscal year 2022 to one month last year. This year the median is just under two months, as of April 30.

In a letter last month, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and 27 other senators urged USCIS director Ur Jaddou to process renewal applications in a timely manner.

“DACA recipients face significant uncertainty given litigation challenging the DACA program, and threats by presidential candidate Donald Trump to end the program,” Padilla and the other senators wrote. “Delays in processing DACA renewals are adding to the instability and uncertainty that DACA recipients already face each day.”

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Program administrators encourage DACA recipients to apply early for renewals. Nearly 87% of renewals are filed later than the recommended minimum time frame of 120 days, Bourke said.

Assuming the process would be as quick as previous renewals, Miguel filed his application in early January. Two months later, his work permit expired and his company was forced to place him on leave.

He sought the help of elected officials, requested to have the case expedited and called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services several times. He checked for updates online daily.

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Filing fees recently increased by $60 to $555, and those who pay a lawyer to review their application can spend hundreds more. The immigration agency recommends that DACA recipients reapply between 120-150 days before their work permits expire.

But there’s a downside to applying too early. New permits kick in as soon as the agency approves them, meaning recipients lose any leftover time remaining under the old permit.

That “pretty much turns it into a one year permit if you do it too early,” Miguel said.

Miguel said that growing up undocumented means he is used to dealing with the uncertainty of the immigration process. But the delays made him think about what will happen after the DACA case is taken up by the Supreme Court.

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Former President Trump moved to end DACA soon after taking office, but the program narrowly survived when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that his administration had done so improperly. A case challenging its legality is expected to reach the Supreme Court, where some legal experts predict the conservative majority will strike it down.

Many DACA recipients see the renewals this year as potentially their last. That also contributed to decisions to wait beyond the recommended filing times, said Karen Tumlin, director of the immigrant advocacy organization Justice Action Center.

If Trump is elected to a second term and DACA ends, those in the program are angling for as many days as possible with protections before his administration institutes mass-deportation plans.

“They all lead with, ‘I need this before the election,’” she said.

Tumlin said she’s in touch with a DACA recipient who applied for renewal in October. When his work permit expired in January, he lost his job at the university he attends in the South. Another person, who filed 105 days before her permit expired, got her renewal in the mail the day before a work trip and narrowly avoided losing her job.

“For each individual, the result is catastrophic,” she said. “It’s not like you can always get rehired.”

Tumlin said advocates have worked hard to make sure DACA recipients understand the agency is backlogged across the board. Still, she said the delays are unusual — she doesn’t recall ever hearing about as many in the program’s history.

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But even some of those who applied on time experienced delays. That’s what happened to Edvin Dapcevic, 35, an executive who leads a sales team at a major tech company in Los Angeles. Dapcevic asked that The Times not name the company publicly.

Born in Yugoslavia (now Montenegro), Dapcevic grew up in Chicago from age 4.

After reading online about other DACA recipients who had experienced delays, he filed his renewal application in November, five months in advance.

Still, his work permit expired at the end of March, forcing him to take a leave of absence from work for two weeks.

“These chronic delays are just another example of how DACA is not a permanent solution,” he said. “You live your life two years at a time.”

One solution, advocates said, would be for USCIS to implement automatic extensions of DACA renewals. The agency has done so for certain categories of work permit applicants, such as asylum seekers and those with temporary protected status, extending their validity by 540 days.

But Bourke, the agency spokesman, said regulations limit automatic extensions to employment authorization categories that don’t require processing an underlying application. DACA, therefore, doesn’t qualify.

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An avid journaler, Miguel began listing out his fears if the renewal failed to come through: losing his job; ending up in debt; no longer being able to financially support his parents.

The situation also brought up the question of marriage. Miguel is in a relationship with a U.S. citizen.

“I’ve always viewed marriage as a sanctity,” he said. “I don’t want to feel pressure just because I need a document.”

Miguel has managed financially with his savings, a small loan and emergency support through his company’s foundation, which helped him pay rent and utilities.

On Wednesday, the permit finally arrived.

Relief washed over him. He said he hopes to return to work in the next week or so. And those chronic worries about “what ifs” have dissipated — for now.

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