Approximately 50,000 immigrant teenagers and young adults applied for deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in the three months after the Obama-era program was reopened to first-time applicants in December, according to newly released government data.
Between January and March, fewer than 800 immigrants — or 1.5% of the applicants during that time span — had their first-time applications for DACA approved, alarming advocates who point tothat threatens the program's existence.
A federal judge in Texas who has previously called DACA unlawful is set to issue a ruling on the legality of the policy, which several Republican-led states are seeking to dismantle. The Texas-led coalition of states have argued the Obama administration overreached its executive authority when it created DACA in 2012.
As of March 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had a backlog of more than 55,000 pending first-time DACA applications, according to agency statistics. The number of immigrants enrolled in DACA decreased to 616,000, a 3% drop from December 2020. The decrease follows a years-long downward trend as some DACA recipients gain permanent legal status or don't renew their protections.
"This is an absolutely imperative time for USCIS to be prioritizing and processing DACA applications," Karen Tumlin, a lawyer who has represented DACA recipients in federal litigation, told CBS News. "We have to remember that these aren't numbers. These are people who have waited for over three years to apply and are fearful everyday that there could be a court ruling closing down the program."
In addition to shielding them from deportation, DACA offers undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children work permits and allows them to obtain social security cards. Many use their enrollment in the program to request state drivers licenses.
In a statement to CBS News, USCIS spokesperson Victoria Palmer acknowledged delays in processing applications, citing the coronavirus pandemic and an increase in the number of petitions. Some of the hold up is due to delays in scheduling biometrics appointments, which USCIS requires first-time DACA petitioners to attend in-person, Palmer added.
Palmer said USCIS is expanding services at offices that collect biometrics and scheduling appointments during "extended hours."
"Our policies and processes have a direct impact on the ability of DACA beneficiaries to enrich our nation with their talents, whether it's through entrepreneurship and innovation, public service, arts and education or building strong families and communities," Palmer said. "We are committed to clearing out backlogs and minimizing processing delays to help facilitate access to benefits and restore confidence in the system."
The processing delays have frustrated first-time applicants like Arlette Morales, 18, one of approximately 66,000 immigrant teenagers who had been locked out of DACA until a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to fully reinstate the initiative in December 2020.
"It's been very frustrating," Morales told CBS News. "My mom always pushes to look at the website, to look for any updates. I've kind of lost patience. It's very frustrating to want to do anything to create a foundation for myself because I don't have any of the essential permits."
Morales said she applied for DACA in January and went to a biometrics appointment in May. She said she hoped to receive a decision around her graduation earlier this month, but her application is still under review.
Getting her petition approved would allow Morales to work and help her family financially, she said. It would also provide a sense of security and relief, noting she fears the consequences of an encounter with the police.
"Being pulled over is so scary for me to think about because it's so easy for things to happen," she said. "So I think that's the biggest thing for me: it would bring me a lot of peace."
The Maryland-based group CASA has helped Morales and about 60 other young immigrants file first-time applications since December. None of the applications have been approved so far and only 19 of the applicants have received biometric appointments, according to CASA.
DACA withstood several Trump administration attempts to terminate the program, with the Supreme Court last year finding that officials had violated administrative law when they moved to end the policy in September 2017.
However, the program remained closed to new applicants until a New York-based federal judge in December 2020 found that Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security at the time, lacked the legal authority to scale back DACA.
Despite these court victories, an ongoing case before U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen is likely to shape the future of DACA. Texas has asked Hanen to either suspend DACA by barring new applications and renewals, or to delay an order terminating the program in its entirety for two years.
The Biden administration has pledged to protect DACA through new regulations and has backed legislation that would place the program's beneficiaries and other so-called "Dreamers" on a pathway to U.S. citizenship. However, no timetable has been announced for the regulations and it remains unclear whether the bill passed by the Democrat-led House will garner 10 Republican votes in the Senate.
Armando Salazar, 20, who applied for DACA in February and has yet to receive a biometrics appointment, said he had to leave college last year because of the pandemic and his financial situation.
The U.S. high school graduate said DACA would allow him to work, potentially go back to college and pursue a career in video games and coding. Receiving no updates on the status of his application has been disheartening, Salazar said.
"Is it going to happen or not? Am I going to get approved?" Salazar told CBS News, describing the questions he has posed to himself recently. "It's been frustrating."