President Trump's decision to wipe out deportation reprieves for young undocumented immigrants has unleashed a frenzied rush to renew 154,000 permits before an Oct. 5 deadline, a process advocacy groups say will cost millions of dollars in fees and stretch their resources to the limit.
In hurricane-ravaged Houston, lawyers are clearing their calendars to help immigrants fill out the forms. In Maryland and Virginia, advocates are holding emergency meetings and recruiting volunteers. Nationwide, immigrants and nonprofits are raising money online to help cover the $495 renewal fees.
"It's definitely one disaster after another: one of natural causes and one man-made," said María Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition, which was preparing for Hurricane Irma on Friday. "It's heartbreaking."
The Trump administration announced last Tuesday that it will eliminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era executive action that protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Nearly 700,000 people have that protection now, government officials said last week. Critics say that President Barack Obama did not have the authority to create the program when he set it up in 2012 and that DACA beneficiaries take jobs and other benefits that should go to legal residents.
Those whose deferred-action status is expiring between Sept. 5 and March 5, 2018, have a month to apply to renew their work permits. A successful application would be only a reprieve, valid for two years.
"It fell on people like a bag of bricks . . . and it's only starting to sink in," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of organizations providing legal services to immigrants. "It's 5,133 [renewal applications] every day, including today. That's 214 per hour, if we work all night long."
Advocates are urging Trump to extend the Oct. 5 deadline to give immigrants a chance to raise money to pay the renewal fees — which could surpass $76 million if all those who are eligible apply. They also say that immigrants in Texas and Florida, which have large undocumented populations, could miss the deadline because of the extreme disruption caused by the recent hurricanes.
"There are whole neighborhoods that are still flooded," said Leslie Crow, a lawyer with BakerRipley, a Texas nonprofit organization helping immigrants apply for work permit renewals. "People have lost their cars. People have lost all of their belongings. . . . I have heard from a few parents: 'I have no idea how I'm going to be able to make that payment now.' "
In Virginia and Maryland, advocates are mobilizing volunteers to quickly review renewal applications, tapping a network of lawyers that formed after Trump's January executive order banning entry to the United States by citizens of certain majority-Muslim countries. The stakes, the advocates say, are high.
"A small clerical error might get their application kicked back, and then they won't meet the deadline," said Sirine Shebaya, a lawyer who volunteers with the Dulles Justice Coalition. "It's an all-hands-on situation."
Barring action from Congress, thousands of DACA recipients will begin losing their legal status in March. About 200,000 will be phased out of the program in 2018, followed by 320,000 in 2019. The program would cease to exist by 2020, federal officials said Friday.
DACA beneficiaries are bracing for a return to being undocumented, unable to work legally for the first time in five years. Many would lose health insurance, driver's licenses and other benefits. And they would be at risk of deportation under an administration that is aggressively enforcing immigration laws.
"This is my home. Thinking about not being protected in your own home is very scary," said Vishal Disawar, 22, a fellow at a tech incubator in Chicago and a citizen of India. His parents brought the family to the United States in 2001, when he was 6, so that his younger sister could undergo heart surgery. He and his sister have deferred action; his expires first, sometime next year.
Disawar graduated last year from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after majoring in computer science and political science. He said he feels encouraged that Microsoft and other tech giants are vowing to defend DACA beneficiaries who lose their status, and he said he hopes more people in the program will come forward to share their stories and push for a new reprieve.
DACA beneficiaries and their advocates are fighting battles on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts and at the state level, where some are renewing efforts to secure in-state tuition and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, even if they do not have DACA status.
Deferred-action beneficiaries can get driver's licenses in all 50 states, but only 12 states and the District issue licenses to other undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center. In Texas, for instance, DACA beneficiaries would be unable to renew their driver's licenses if their status expires, said a Department of Public Safety spokesman.
The most urgent battle is in Congress, where multiple bills are pending to address the situation of young immigrants.
Many advocates are throwing their weight behind the bipartisan Dream Act, which would make 1.8 million immigrants — including those in DACA — eligible for conditional residency, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Those who met additional requirements, such as completing their education, could apply for permanent residency and get on a path to U.S. citizenship.
In exchange for a bill to protect young immigrants, Republican lawmakers are likely to push for concessions that would put at greater risk of deportation the rest of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, including the parents of DACA beneficiaries. Trump, meanwhile, has called for funding to expand the wall on the border with Mexico and to hire thousands of additional Border Patrol agents and personnel to handle deportations.
Advocates for immigrants say they would settle for nothing less than a "clean" Dream Act that would not be tied to immigration enforcement. But critics of illegal immigration — and some lawmakers — have called that position unreasonable.
"I know they don't want that, but the whole rationale for DACA was that they didn't have any choice in the matter," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tougher enforcement. "The parents did not grow up here and did have a choice."
Trump has sent mixed signals on the deferred-action beneficiaries. During the presidential campaign, he vowed to end the program immediately on taking office. But he acted only months after entering the White House, after Texas and several other states threatened to sue the administration to take action on DACA.
After last week's announcement, Trump reassured young immigrants on Twitter that they would be safe from deportation during the coming six months and urged Congress to pass a law to permanently resolve their status. Otherwise, he said, he would "revisit" the issue.
On Friday, Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said he was hopeful that Congress would pass the Dream Act, which has not cleared both houses since it was introduced 16 years ago. He acknowledged that a law that would protect only young immigrants brought here as children would be difficult for DACA beneficiaries to swallow, since their parents would remain at risk of deportation.
But he said they should take up one battle at a time.
"You are the most beloved, the most cared for, the most recognized of our immigrants," he said Friday. "What chance do I have for your mom and dad if I lose you?"