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‘Dreamers’ fear loss of legal status as USCIS offices stay closed

DACA recipients are required to submit biometric data in person to offices closed because of coronavirus

A protester holds up a sign during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in November.
A protester holds up a sign during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in November. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

For tens of thousands of immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the coronavirus pandemic has created additional challenges to staying in the U.S. legally.

Adrian Escarate, a 31-year-old “Dreamer” from Chile, needs to renew his DACA status before it expires in June. After sending his application in February, he received a standard response with an appointment when he could provide his fingerprints and other biometric information to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office near his San Francisco Bay Area home.

Then, on March 18, USCIS shut down all field offices amid the coronavirus crisis.

Escarate, whose appointment was scheduled the following week, felt a “punch to the stomach.” The cancellation was another reminder that Dreamers “have to jump through hoops” to live a normal life, he said.

Escarate is among roughly 62,000 DACA recipients whose status is set to expire in the next few months before the Supreme Court can weigh in on the program later this spring, according to estimates by the Center for American Progress.  

When USCIS shut down all of its offices, it did not issue guidance to immigrants such as DACA recipients, green card holders or others who need to submit biometric information as part of their renewal process. The agency plans to stay closed until at least April 7. 

On Monday, following calls on the issue by CQ Roll Call, USCIS issued a statement saying the agency would reuse previously submitted biometric data to process certain work authorization applications, including those Dreamers need as part of their renewal process. This would apply to applicants who had an appointment on or after March 18.

“This will remain in effect until ASCs [application support centers] are open for appointments to the public,” the statement said.

Ruben Reyes, an immigration attorney in Phoenix, said the new decision will help Dreamers meet part of their renewal process — but hardly provides any guarantees.

“That is still a start in the right direction,” he said, adding that he hopes USCIS will provide more guidance for Dreamers in coming weeks.

The DACA program was created in 2012 under the Obama administration to allow the  immigrants who arrived in the U.S. unlawfully as children to work and live in the country without the fear of deportation. 

President Donald Trump announced plans to end the program shortly after he was sworn into office in 2017, but his efforts were blocked by a series of federal court decisions. The Supreme Court took up the case last fall, on appeal by the Trump administration and after several failed efforts by Congress to pass legislation to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Immigration attorneys, advocacy groups and congressional lawmakers have urged USCIS for weeks to automatically renew DACA status during the coronavirus pandemic — or at least issue guidance for Dreamers and others whose legal status could be jeopardized by the closure of USCIS offices.

Approximately 652,880 individuals held DACA status as of Sept. 30, according to the Center for American Progress. 

“The inability to renew means that a DACA recipient is now exposed to the threat of deportation and losing the ability to work legally,” said Claudia Flores, the organization’s immigration campaign manager.

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