Thousands of Dreamers could lose protection as DACA deadline arrives

PHOTO: People participate in a protest in defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA in New York, Sept, 9, 2017.PlayStephanie Keith/Reuters
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As of today, 36,000 eligible unauthorized immigrants had yet to renew their immigration status as a part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, despite today's Oct. 5 deadline to renew.

Of the 154,200 individuals whose DACA status is set to expire between Sept. 5, 2017, and March 5, 2018, approximately 118,000 either have renewal requests currently pending with the federal immigration agency or have already had their renewal requests adjudicated, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which manages the program that's overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Today's deadline is part of what DHS is calling an "orderly wind down" of the program, which the Trump administration announced it was rescinding at the beginning of September. The program will continue to phase out over the next five months, leaving the fate of Dreamers in the hands of Congress.

No new applications were accepted after the announcement on Sept. 5 and renewals would only be accepted until Oct. 5 for certain categories of recipients. If legislative action is not taken, DACA recipients could begin to lose benefits on March 6, 2018.

Eligible DACA recipients have until today to "properly file their renewal request and associated application for employment authorization to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)," DHS said in a press release Tuesday.

Three USCIS facilities are prepared to accept courier DACA deliveries until midnight, local time, a spokesperson for the agency said Thursday. However, USCIS lockbox facilities do not accept walk-ups, so DACA renewal packages cannot be hand delivered today.

"For individuals who are still eligible to request renewal of their deferred action under DACA, but have not yet done so, I urge you to make this a priority," said acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke in a statement earlier this week.

Given the time needed to process the renewal requests, USCIS will not have a final tally of all DACA renewals for at least a week, according to the agency.

The DACA program was started by President Barack Obama in 2012 through an executive action that allowed certain undocumented immigrants who were children when they were brought to the U.S. to remain in the country and be eligible for work permits if they meet certain requirements.

As a candidate, Donald Trump vowed to terminate the program -- calling Obama’s action "illegal" -- but tempered his tone once elected.

"To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest. We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It's just that simple," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said announcing the administration's decision last month.

Since the start of the program, nearly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children have been granted protection from deportation under DACA. At the time of the announcement to end the program, there were 689,821 DACA enrollees, which excludes terminations, failures to renew, and those who updated their immigration status.

The end of the program has angered immigration advocates, spurred calls for a legislative fix and frightened recipients who will face potential deportation once their status expires.

Karla Aguirre, 22, considers herself lucky. Her status was set to expire at the end of January, so she was able to renew for another two years, giving her extended protection as the program begins to phase out.

”I’m able to renew mine, but sadly there are many applicants that are not able to renew," said Aguirre.

Aguirre, who has called South Carolina her home since she was six years old and came to the U.S. with her sister, was able to attend high school. However, she struggled to pay for college because she was unable to apply for federal loans and South Carolina does not offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, said Aguirre.

DACA benefits allowed her to work at her sister's small business and help her parents.

She said she "felt desperate" after Trump announced the end to the program. She said a Facebook post calling on DACA students to come to Washington felt "like a message from god."

"You want to help your community and this is how you do it," she said.

As of Sept. 4, 2017, there were approximately 207,000 individuals whose DACA status expires between March 6, 2018 and December 31, 2018. This is the first group of people who could begin to lose their status.

On Tuesday, DHS announced that USCIS will accept renewal applications for people from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico after Oct. 5th on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that only about five percent of the island has power.

However, as of Tuesday, fewer than 20 current recipients from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have yet to renew with USCIS, said DHS.

No other exceptions have been made by the department.

Aguirre and many others have come to Washington, D.C., this week to advocate on Capitol Hill for legislation that would create a lasting solution for Dreamers.

In an effort to provide a legislative fix, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the DREAM Act of 2017, which was modeled on earlier proposals and would allow Dreamers to obtain permanent residency and American citizenship if they graduate from high school or obtain a GED and work for at least three years, serve in the military or pursue higher education. The bipartisan bill would require applicants to demonstrate English proficiency, have no history of serious crimes and pass law enforcement and security background checks.

"The March 5 deadline is going to make us act. Failure is not an option. I've never seen more bipartisan support for the idea than right this moment," said Graham at a press conference on Wednesday.

A similar bill passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2010 but failed to advance in the Senate.

At the end of September, two Republican senators introduced another bill, known as the SUCCEED Act, that addresses the status of the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants. This bill potentially offers dreamers a 15-year path to citizenship and would also prevent recipients from sponsoring family members, an attempt to address concerns from immigration hawks and Trump.

Many immigrant advocacy groups oppose this bill and are calling for the passage of a "clean" bill that does not add additional border security and enforcement measures.

"I think it was grossly irresponsible to end DACA with no contingency plan in place," said Patrice Lawrence, the national Policy and Advocacy coordinator for the UndocuBlack Network, an network of current and formerly undocumented black people.

UndocuBlack was one of the many organizations that held clinics across the country ahead of Thursday's deadline to help provide legal and financial support to DACA recipients that needed to renew.

"We wanted to push to say, don’t let money be the reason you don’t do it," she said.

The federal government did not directly inform DACA recipients about the changes, Duke said during congressional testimony last week and USCIS confirmed this week, rather the agency used the press and social media to get its message out.

"We have not contacted each individual directly," said Duke during the Sept. 27 hearing.

The deadline to renew was "arbitrary and short," said Karla Molinar, a student of international studies and political science. "DACA was one of the few Band-Aids that we had to protect people," she added.

Molinar, a communications fellow for the New Mexico Dream Team, the largest youth-led undocumented organization in the state, was brought to the U.S. when she was 13 years old, but missed the cutoff for deferred action benefits under Obama by just one month.

She said that the people that need to renew the most were the least likely to renew, because those that weren't able to get their applications in on time are likely to have less access to information and financial resources. She said it was especially difficult for people impacted by the hurricanes, making it "almost impossible" to come up with the $495 fee when they were dealing with devastation, like a destroyed house.

However, she said she's hopeful that Congress will pass legislation that will protect her and many others.

"I believe in the morality of treating people with respect and the positive change that undocumented immigrants have brought to this country," she said.

ABC News' Benjamin Siegel and Serena Marshall contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to reflect new numbers provided by USCIS on Oct. 5, 2017.