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Low DACA approval numbers prompt concern from lawmakers, advocates

Senate Judiciary chairman calls backlog ‘simply unacceptable’

Advocates for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, rally in front of the Supreme Court in June 2020.
Advocates for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, rally in front of the Supreme Court in June 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Only a fraction of the tens of thousands of new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were approved in the first quarter of 2021, rankling advocates who’d hoped to see the program bolstered under a Democratic president.

According to data released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 763 new applications for the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to live and work legally, were approved from January through March of this year.

Nearly 50,000 applications were received, however, creating a total backlog of more than 55,000 applications.

“The slow rate of processing DACA applications — both initial requests and renewals — is simply unacceptable,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime supporter of the program, said in a statement Wednesday. “DACA processing delays are harming Dreamers, as well as their families, livelihoods, and security.”

Durbin urged the Biden administration to work “expeditiously” to reduce the backlog.

Jose Munoz, national communications manager at United We Dream, an advocacy organization for immigrant youth, said he was encouraged to see how many DACA applications were submitted since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20, but he signaled concern over how many so far have been approved.

“We’re just, unfortunately, not seeing approval numbers matching the enthusiasm behind the number of applications,” he said.

In a statement, USCIS said it was “actively working to preserve and fortify DACA.”

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors — including an increase in applications and petitions — USCIS is experiencing delays for some applications and petitions filed, with processing times affected by several variables including demand and capacity,” agency spokesperson Victoria 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 low numbers contribute to a looming sense of uncertainty for the 2012 Obama-era immigration program, which is also facing legal challenges.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who previously ruled against the Obama administration’s attempts to expand DACA, is now considering a request from a group of states to strike down the program entirely in a Texas federal court case. A ruling could come any day now.

“This is something that’s incredibly concerning,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council. “The low approval rating remains inexcusable given the consequences for this particular population.”

Loweree said wait times average 10 months — a long time for an immigrant who cannot work legally without DACA authorization.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are pushing to preserve DACA by formally enshrining it into law. The House in March passed a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, among other groups, but that legislation has stalled in the narrowly divided Senate.

Senate Republicans have balked at granting legal status to any undocumented immigrants without accompanying increases in border security, although some have historically supported the DACA program on its own.

“For young people who excitedly submitted their application for the first time, they’re just sort of waiting,” Munoz said, remembering his own experience waiting for approval when he first applied for DACA protections. “This is the difference between them being able to apply for a job or get a license — it really has a big impact.”

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