Nearly a decade after being allowed to work legally in the US, Ju Hong was back at square one this month, scrambling to obtain a work permit and seeking continued protection from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Hong has been a DACA recipient since 2012 but his permits expired in early July despite applying for a routine renewal. “When my DACA got expired, I was terminated from the job and as a result, I lost my health insurance and it’s impacting me both personally and professionally,” Hong, 31, told CNN.
On Wednesday afternoon, Hong received a call from US Citizenship and Immigration Services notifying him that his DACA had been renewed, he told CNN. He’s still waiting for official notice that his work authorization has been approved.
“I’m super thankful and relieved,” he said. “In the previous cases, when DACA was approved, work authorization was also approved.”
Hong is among thousands of DACA beneficiaries desperately trying to keep or renew their permits amid a backlog of applications that accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the latest twist in an ongoing saga over the program, which shields undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation and allows them to legally work in the United States.
It’s been a turbulent few years for beneficiaries of DACA, after the Trump administration tried ending DACA in 2017. That move faced immediate legal challenges and was eventually blocked by the Supreme Court last year.
Roughly 13,000 renewal cases have remained pending for longer than four months, according to USCIS correspondence obtained by CNN. The agency recently told Congress that the majority of DACA renewal cases are completed within four months, however.
At the same time, thousands of first-time applications, which were opened up last December in light of a court ruling, are still in the process of being reviewed, according to the data provided to Congress.
DACA was intended to provide temporary reprieve to a slice of the undocumented population in the absence of legislation. But it’s now dragged on for nearly 10 years and despite the Biden administration’s pledges to fortify the program, recipients are getting agitated.
“I do think the Biden administration has failed to act with expediency in terms of processing new applications and in terms of renewing as fast as possible,” said Bruna Sollod, communications director for United We Dream and a DACA recipient. “What else do we need to go through for them to understand there’s urgency for citizenship?”
The urgency behind processing applications stems in part from an expected court decision in Texas over the legality of DACA. The case before Judge Andrew Hanen, brought by Texas and a coalition of states in 2018, could throw the Obama-era program back into limbo.
In anticipation of that court decision, DACA recipients have been continuing to apply for renewal, which is required every two years, and others who were eligible but unable to apply for most of the Trump administration are submitting applications for the first time. In the process, some are experiencing lengthy delays that are putting them out of jobs.
“It never happened before, in terms of this delay. Every two years, it was always renewed on time. This time around it didn’t renew in a timely manner and I fell out of status,” Hong said.
Hong said he worked at the Alameda County Public Health Department, where he managed a portfolio focused on mental health and substance use disorder. Now that his DACA has been renewed, he plans to return.
USCIS acknowledges that the pandemic and other factors, including an increase in applications and petitions, is contributing to delays for some applications and petitions, but noted first-time applications for DACA and renewal requests are within normal processing times.
“USCIS also knows that policies and procedures have a direct impact on the lives of DACA recipients and we are committed to minimizing processing delays to help facilitate access to benefits and restore confidence in the system,” agency spokesperson Victoria Palmer said in a statement to CNN. “USCIS is also increasing public outreach efforts to ensure that immigrant communities across the country have access to information on how to apply for benefits for which they may be eligible.”
The agency also shared, in response to concerns expressed by Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, that the agency has trained and reassigned officers to process initial DACA applications.
“These delays have serious impacts not just on our immigrant communities, but our state as a whole. Dreamers are our medical workers, educators, and neighbors,” Cortez Masto said in a statement to CNN.
On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, along with other Democratic colleagues, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas underscoring the importance of work permits for DACA recipients and requesting additional information on processing, given concerns over the backlog.
In March, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the recipients of DACA, also known as “Dreamers,” as well as for Temporary Protected Status recipients and Deferred Enforced Departure beneficiaries. The bill passed the House in previous years but is expected to hit a wall in the Senate.
“Here I am, my personal example, I fell out of the status, like so many other DACA recipients fall out of status,” Hong said. “We’re really tired of these empty promises and we want to really urge President Biden and Congress to act, not just to fix this DACA backlog but to have this permanent solution.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.