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What should Dreamers do?

The fevered immigration talks in Washington leave so-called Dreamers wondering how long they’ll be able to work legally.

Undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children were permitted starting in August 2012 to apply for work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a life-changing development for young people who previously lived in the shadows.

But President Donald Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era initiative, ostensibly because it wouldn’t survive a court challenge. New applications were halted, and renewals were set to end March 5. The move thrust Dreamers into a state of uncertainty and, in some cases, desperation.

Congress and the White House have used the end of DACA to try to negotiate a broader immigration deal that many Republicans insist should include beefed-up security and changes to the legal immigration system.

What does all this mean for Dreamers? Here are some answers.

How does the federal government define “Dreamers”?

Strictly speaking, Dreamers are the 690,000 people enrolled in DACA. To be eligible to apply, you must have arrived in the U.S. no later than June 15, 2007, at which time you must have been under the age of 16. (More details on DACA eligibility are here.)

But some use the term “Dreamer” to describe any undocumented immigrant who arrived as a child, even if he or she doesn’t meet DACA criteria. Some or all of this broader group would be eligible for relief under various legislative proposals. The DREAM Act, S. 1615 (115), is the bill favored by congressional Democrats and backed by some Republicans. It would extend conditional legal status to an estimated 2.1 million people, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Overall, the Pew Research Center estimates that roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S.

The Trump administration on Thursday proposed a path extending protection, and perhaps citizenship, to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, a significant concession to Democrats. That would more than double the number of people the federal government calls Dreamers. In exchange, the administration demanded $25 billion for border security, including a border wall; elimination of a separate visa lottery; new restrictions on immigration by family members of immigrants already in the U.S.; and other mechanisms to increase enforcement.

How might an immigration deal affect Dreamers?

The biggest change would be to give Dreamers a route to legal status or citizenship. More conservative bills don’t provide such a path, or provide only a very arduous or limited one, and address only those people who are already enrolled in DACA. More liberal bills provide a quicker and more generous path to legal status or citizenship, and address millions of people who arrived in the U.S. as children.

A conservative bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), H.R. 4760 (115), would offer only a three-year renewable legal status to DACA enrollees, with no path to citizenship. The more liberal DREAM Act would extend conditional legal status to an estimated 2.1 million people, as noted above. Dreamers could apply immediately for permanent residency if they met the criteria. The DREAM Act’s path to citizenship can be as short as five years, or even three for people who marry a U.S. citizen, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.

Trump backs citizenship for DACA enrollees within 10 to 12 years, he said at the White House on Wednesday. Trump said the program’s recipients would “morph” into citizenship, but didn’t offer further details.

When will DACA enrollees lose work authorization?

That’s a complicated question, but the simple answer is: No. 1, some have lost it already; and No. 2, some could maintain authorization for years (more on that later).

Dreamers must renew their DACA enrollment every two years, but the Trump administration’s phaseout permitted renewals only for DACA enrollees whose protected status was set to expire between Sept. 5 and March 5 — a universe of 154,000 people. The Trump administration stopped taking applications for renewal after Oct. 5. Anyone whose DACA status was set to expire after March 5 was given no option to renew, which meant enrollment would drop off sharply after that date.

Not all eligible Dreamers renewed before the October deadline. Of the 154,000, roughly 21,000 failed to reapply. Of those, at least 1,900 had applications that were lost in the mail, according to a report in The New York Times. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in November that it would consider these issues on an individual basis, but cases remain unresolved.

Wait, didn’t I read somewhere that DACA recently resumed renewals?

Correct. The Trump administration’s decision to end the program was challenged in court, and a federal judge in San Francisco ruled in early January that USCIS must resume accepting renewal applications for previous DACA enrollees. The Trump administration was not, however, ordered to accept new DACA applications, and it has not.

The judge’s order is temporary, and the Justice Department petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case. Somewhat surprisingly, the Trump administration didn’t seek an emergency stay of the order, which means renewals will continue to be processed.

It may be that the administration felt no more ready for its March deadline than Dreamers did. Trump told reporters Wednesday night that he might extend the March 5 cutoff if needed. That conciliatory comment, combined with a similar one that Trump tweeted in September, undermines the administration’s rationale for ending DACA — that it’s unconstitutional — and muddies further the question of when DACA will stop accepting renewals.

Should DACA enrollees renew their status?

The National Immigration Law Center recommends that DACA recipients consult an immigration attorney or a representative accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals. They should do that quickly, before the Supreme Court overturns the district court ruling and/or Congress halts re-enrollment by statute. (More on this below.)

Under the terms of the judge’s order, USCIS will not accept “advance parole” applications from current DACA enrollees. The parole allows a non-citizen to re-enter the United States after traveling abroad, but it was rescinded in September as part of the DACA phaseout.

The $495 application fee will pose an obstacle for some DACA recipients who seek to renew their status. With so much uncertainty around the program generated by court actions and White House negotiations with Congress, some may opt to wait for further developments.

Can a DACA enrollee reapply early, as a hedge against renewals being halted a second time?

Yes, but your application may not be accepted. USCIS continues to follow an earlier policy that created an optimal window to apply for a renewal. That window is 120 to 150 days before a Dreamer’s DACA enrollment expires.

On the application form, the agency warns that DACA renewal applications received more than 150 days before expiration may be rejected and returned with instructions to resubmit. But the application also encourages Dreamers to submit a renewal request more than 120 days before DACA expiration.

Will other immigration changes affect DREAMers?

That’s certainly possible. One unresolved question is whether a DACA bill will extend protection to undocumented immigrant parents of Dreamers. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) crafted a plan earlier this month that would offer those parents a three-year provisional legal status, but not a path to citizenship through their children.

Trump rejected the Graham-Durbin plan in a meeting with the senators earlier this month — the same gathering in which Trump made his racist “shithole”/Norway comment. In the administration’s latest proposal, new citizens may sponsor their spouses and children to enter the U.S. legally, but not parents or other relatives.

The impact on Dreamer families may not stop there. If the administration seeks a surge in immigration enforcement — as suggested by a four-page memo that outlines administration “must-haves,” and reiterated in the latest administration proposal — Dreamers might see undocumented family members targeted for deportation.

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