WOODBRIDGE, Virginia — Passport photos, a $495 check, and a stack of paperwork for the Department of Homeland Security: done.
Zurisadai Zamudio had just spent an hour with an attorney preparing paperwork to renew her status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which gives unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children the ability to work and live in the US for two years without fear of deportation.
Zamudio had to swear that she hadn't been arrested and hadn't left the country without permission since she first obtained DACA status in 2014. And once again, she gave the US government her name and address, hoping it would allow her to stay a bit longer in her adopted country — not make it easier to deport her to Mexico.
"It's pretty scary," said the 20-year-old nursing student, whose parents brought her to the United States when she was 9. "You know you are in the system and that they can come get you any time."
Across the country, from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, immigration attorneys are scrambling to help more than 150,000 eligible young immigrants like Zamudio renew their status before it's too late. On September 5, the Trump administration announced that it was ending DACA and would no longer issue new permits. Everyone else could keep their permits until they expire. For DREAMers whose permits were set to expire before March, the administration gave them 30 days to renew one last time. Now they have to get their paperwork into the hands of Homeland Security staff by the October 5 deadline set by the Trump administration.
DACA permits can only be renewed for two years, so all of them will be invalid by April 2020 — making the immigrants who are protected by them eligible for deportation.
DREAMers who can renew DACA once more are buying themselves some extra time here. But it's unlikely that all 150,000 who are eligible to renew will rush through the application and gather the money in time. Even those who are making the effort wonder what the point of it is, since they will likely have to uproot their lives in two years anyway.
In Woodbridge, a suburb of Washington, DC, several DREAMers waited their turn to meet with immigration lawyers at CASA, a nonprofit organization that is hosting DACA renewal clinics. They waited patiently with anxious parents. Two rushed to the nearby CVS pharmacy to get last-minute passport photos.
Anyone whose work permit expires before March — like Zamudio's — has two more weeks to complete the renewal applications. It's a tight deadline, particularly since the paperwork has to physically arrive by mail at DHS offices by October 5, meaning it needs to be mailed well in advance. The time crunch has led many social services providers, like CASA, to shift all their attention and resources to getting as many renewals submitted as possible. So far, CASA has submitted 50 to 80 applications, said Nick Katz, the senior manager for CASA's legal program.
"This deadline is completely arbitrary," said Katz, in between meetings with clients at the renewal clinic in Virginia. "Some people aren't prepared to renew right now."
Coming up with the $495 government fee to process the application and conduct a background check is a huge barrier, he said. While CASA offers scholarships to those who can't afford to pay it, not everyone is aware of their options.
Congress can't decide on a solution
During the campaign, Trump promised to end the Obama-era program that temporarily protected young immigrants, known as DREAMers, after the stalled congressional proposal that would give them a path to citizenship. Since Trump's inauguration, DREAMers had been waiting anxiously for any sign that he would fulfill that promise. That day came on September 5.
The administration was facing pressure from a handful of attorneys general in conservative states, who threatened to sue if the government didn't announce plans to end DACA. When he announced the decision, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the plan to eliminate DACA was not about restricting immigration but rather about ending an unconstitutional program.
"We are a people of compassion, and we are a people of law," he said during his remarks. "But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws."
The future of the 800,000 young immigrants who have been working legally in the United States for the past five years now remains uncertain. The administration has not said whether it will proactively start to deport DREAMers whose permits expire in April or soon after (outside the last renewal window).
Meanwhile, Democratic congressional leaders have been trying to strike a deal with President Trump. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they agreed to include money for border security in exchange for Trump's support for the DREAM Act, which would give DREAMers permanent legal status and a long-term path to citizenship. Trump and moderate Republicans seem interested in finding a permanent solution for DACA immigrants, but they are torn about whether it should include eventual citizenship.
"We are not looking at citizenship. We are not looking at amnesty," Trump said to reporters after Pelosi and Schumer announced the deal.
Resignation and anxiety sets in
All this uncertainty has left DREAMers and their families anxious about the future.
Carlos Rosas, who lives in Arlington, is cynical about his chances of getting legal status through Congress. "Everything we've been able to accomplish will just go to the trash," he said after meeting with immigration lawyers.
The 20-year-old college student said his mom has been hounding him for weeks to renew his DACA permit. It expires in December. But he's already resigned about the future. Even if he can stay another two years, it won't be long enough to finish school and get his degree in business administration. He was planning to open his own restaurant after that. DACA was his chance to become a business owner —a huge step up from waiting tables.
"Now our careers will go away, our cars will go away. Everything will go away," he said. "I won't be able to help my mom pay the bills."
Rosas and the hundreds of thousands of other DREAMers went through major hoops to get DACA status after the program was launched in 2012. They had to track down elementary school records or any documents that proved they had been living in the United States since 2007. Their parents had to show that they paid their taxes.
Social service agencies and attorneys devoted countless hours of legal aid to help this group of young immigrants get the protection. CASA helped anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 DREAMers in the DC metro area submit their initial applications, said Katz.
Zamudio was part of that group. DACA allowed her to get a driver's license and obtain in-state tuition at a local community college in northern Virginia. Ever since Trump was elected, she knew there was a chance it could all go away. But she was still in shock when the announcement finally came.
"We didn't think it was going to happen because it was going to affect so many thousands of people," said Zamudio, who is starting her second year of nursing school. Even with another two years of protection, she won't be able to get her degree, she said.
Zamudio's DACA permit expires in December, and she wasn't planning to renew until November. Luckily, she scraped together some money she got for her birthday and, with her mom's help, came up with the $495 she needed to renew DACA.
Even though she will likely get another two-year renewal, Zamudio is convinced that immigration officials will come after her family. After all, many of her relatives are still undocumented. She gets text messages about potential ICE activity in her area, and she never answers the door when someone knocks. She doesn't trust the president's assurances that he will take care of DACA immigrants.
"Trump says one thing and then does something else," she said. "We're not some toy he can just toss around. Stop playing games with us; we're scared."