Dreamers deferred as Congress lets DACA deadline pass

PHOTO: Demonstrators, many of them recent immigrants to America, protest the government shutdown and the lack of a deal on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) outside of Federal Plaza on Jan. 22, 2018 in New York City. PlaySpencer Platt/Getty Images
WATCH DACA recipient, turning 18 in 2018, faces 'major decision time' without a vote

Six months ago, when he announced he was ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Donald Trump picked March 5 as the deadline for Congress to work out a solution to prevent DACA recipients from facing deportation.

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But the president’s plans were thwarted by multiple court challenges, rendering Monday’s deadline all but meaningless. Now, as Congress and the Dreamers await a resolution in the courts, lawmakers have paused their legislative efforts and some 700,000 DACA recipients have been plunged into a constant state of uncertainty.

The immigration battle in the courts

Two separate federal court injunctions have effectively halted the president’s rescission of the DACA program with the judges ordering the Department of Justice to maintain the current program as it was before Trump’s announcement last September.

In January, a federal judge in California issued a nationwide injunction that prompted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to begin taking DACA renewal applications again.

Since then, DACA policy for renewals has been operating on the Obama-era terms that were in place before it was rescinded.

And in February, a federal judge in New York issued another preliminary injunction that also blocked Trump’s efforts to end the program.

Currently, new applications are not being accepted but there were approximately 22,000 initial DACA grant requests pending as of January 31, 2018.

PHOTO: The Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, Oct. 10, 2017. J. Scott Applewhite/AP, FILE
The Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, Oct. 10, 2017.

Last week, responding to a Justice Department appeal for a quick resolution, the Supreme Court declined to intervene until lower courts consider the issue.

The White House issued a blistering response:

“The DACA program – which provides work permits and myriad government benefits to illegal immigrants en masse – is clearly unlawful. The district judge’s decision to unilaterally re-impose a program that Congress had explicitly and repeatedly rejected is a usurpation of legislative authority," Raj Shah, principal deputy press secretary said in a statement. "We look forward to having this case expeditiously heard by the appeals court and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, where we fully expect to prevail,” Shah said.

President Trump weighed in, too.

"We tried to get it moved quickly because we'd like to help DACA,” Trump said. "I think everybody in this room wants to help with DACA, but the Supreme Court just ruled it has to go through the normal channels.”

Despite providing a temporary legal reprieve, the court rulings have done little to reassure immigrant rights activists and Dreamers.

“These past few months have been one of the uncertain moments of my life.”

While the DACA cases make their way through courts on both coasts, young people affected by the policy, like Sarahi Aguilera, are living in limbo.

Aguilera was born in Camargo, a city in the eastern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. She arrived in the United States at the tender age of six as an undocumented immigrant. She is a DACA recipient.

“For most of us, DACA was the only opportunity we had to come out of the shadows and show everyone what we are capable of doing, regardless of the legal status in which we stand in,” Aguilera said in a testimonial provided by the Center for Popular Democracy to ABC News.

A sign depicts the Statue of Liberty embracing an immigrant during a protest against the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) at the Capitol on the eve of a government shutdown, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington, D.C. REX/Shutterstock
A sign depicts the Statue of Liberty embracing an immigrant during a protest against the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) at the Capitol on the eve of a government shutdown, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

“The thought of losing everything I have worked for is a terrifying thought the haunts me from the moment I wake up, until the second before I close my eyes in bed,” she said.

Aguilera is enrolled in college and is studying criminal justice. She is due to graduate with her associate’s degree in 2019.

“My whole future is on the line, and as much as I fear of the outcome that might affect me drastically, I will not let my fear be bigger than the aspiration I have to follow my dreams,” she said.

Aguilera said she hopes to attend law school one day.

“I will continue to fight until Congress passes a Dream Act. I am a Dreamer; and...I have faith that our community will come together to speak up for those who are voiceless,” she said.

Dreamers deferred as Congress fails to act

In the months leading up to a series of Senate votes - the most meaningful congressional action on DACA so far - Dreamers were a constant presence in the hallways of Congress, urging lawmakers to resolve their state of limbo.

They were also there to thank lawmakers for scheduling votes on four different proposals, one of which was backed by the White House. The series of votes took place on Feb. 15, and all four failed.

Two of the measures were bipartisan and would have provided a pathway to citizenship for both DACA recipients and immigrants who would be eligible for the protections but did not sign up for them. The conservative Trump-backed plan, which included a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers but cut overall immigration levels, fared the worst of all four bills, getting just 39 votes.

After the failed showing on the Senate floor, the White House said the attention should turn to a conservative bill in the House sponsored by Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte and Homeland Security Committee chairman Mike McCaul, which mirrors the conservative Senate option.

PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a sign saying It is just cruel to not defend DACA as thousands of activists gathered on the National Mall and marched to the White House for the 2018 Womens March on Washington D.C., Jan. 20, 2018. Jeff Malet Photography via Newscom
A demonstrator holds a sign saying "It is just cruel to not defend DACA" as thousands of activists gathered on the National Mall and marched to the White House for the 2018 Women's March on Washington D.C., Jan. 20, 2018.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also made it clear after the failed Senate votes that he would only be willing to bring to the floor DACA solutions that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president.

“But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform,” McConnell added.

Given the uncertainty that the court challenges have brought to the DACA debate, some lawmakers are now predicting that Congress may pass a short-term extension, perhaps a year or two, of the policies laid out in the Obama executive order. The omnibus spending bill, due by March 23, is seen as the likeliest vehicle.

"It's significantly disappointing for us to take the reduced imminence of the March 5 deadline and say the one thing we can do is a several-year extension," Sen. Chris Coons, who co-authored one of the failed bipartisan Senate bills, said Tuesday.

The uncertainty is palpable for those waiting on Congress to act, but activists say they remain hopeful.

“With no clear path forward on the horizon to protect Dreamers, thousands of immigrant youth are left in limbo and in the sights of Trump’s deportation machine,” said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy in a statement to ABC News.

“Yet the resiliency of immigrant youth gives us hope. 'You can take away our papers,' they have said, 'but you cannot take away our dignity.'”

ABC's Geneva Sands contributed to this report.