TAMPA — Two months ago, Gabriel Centeno finally saved up the $495 he needed to renew his work permit through an Obama-era program for children who are undocumented immigrants.
But time has not been on his side. His permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, expired last week. His renewal application still is pending.
“It’s the first time something like this has happened to me,” said Centeno, 23, of Tampa. “It’s more than a nightmare.”
Thousands of immigrants like Centeno, known as Dreamers, have seen long delays in their renewal requests, jeopardizing the legal status that enables them to remain in the United States.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services blames the backlog on a combination of factors — the pandemic, lack of staff to process applications, and a budget shortfall.
Unlike most government agencies, the agency is funded almost entirely through fees charged to users.
Some DACA recipients have reported losing their jobs or being furloughed while they wait for their permit applications to be processed. Others have employers willing to give them more time.
Centeno came to the U.S. illegally two decades ago with his parents and two brothers — also DACA recipients — from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He entered the deferred action program in 2013.
The program was introduced in 2012 with an executive order and allows certain undocumented immigrants brought to the United States before 2007 as children to remain here legally. An estimated 616,000 people now fall under its protection.
The program provides recipients a Social Security number and enables them to work, but they must apply for renewable two–year permits to avoid deportation.
Centeno has studied and worked as a welder. Two years ago, he married Maria, 23, who is of Colombian heritage and was born in the United States. The couple have two children, 1 and 2.
Because of the pandemic, Centeno lost his job in April 2020. He didn’t land a new one for eight months, when a relative called to offer him work as a roofer.
“We were surviving,” Centeno said.
Meantime, he used up his savings to pay the rent. He went into debt to cover his family’s expenses.
Centeno hoped to submit his DACA application earlier, maybe April or May, but he couldn’t afford it.
“It’s a lot of money for me,” he said. “I’m still paying past due bills and recovering step by step. It’s not easy.”
An estimated 13,000 DACA renewal requests were pending at the end of June, along with 81,000 first-time applications, according to citizenship and immigration. The data was first reported by CBS News.
The agency said it is working to reduce the backlog. The Biden administration is assigning more immigration officers to the task.
“DACA recipients are students, military service members, essential workers, and part of our communities in every way, shape, and form,” the agency’s acting director Tracy Renaud said in a news release. “USCIS will comply with the court order, continue to implement the components of DACA that remain in place.”
President Donald Trump took steps to end DACA in 2017 as part of his policy of reducing immigration across the board. A court overruled his order and new applications resumed in December.
Then, two weeks ago, a federal judge in Texas ruled against the program, prohibiting new applications but leaving it intact for existing recipients.
Congress holds the key to ending the uncertainty, said Lisette Sanchez, an immigration lawyer in Tampa.
“The current processing time with USCIS for DACA renewals is causing tremendous hardship and this situation could be solved if recipients were provided with a definite solution,” Sanchez said.
Comprehensive immigration reform is the only solution, said Nanci Palacios, a DACA participant and deputy director of Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that works with immigrants and minority communities in Dover.
Other classes of immigrants also are in need of clarity, she said, including those here under temporary protected status as refugees from nations that have suffered from war and natural disaster.
“The only way to overcome that hurdle is for Congress to finally create a pathway to citizenship that includes not only DACA recipients, but also TPS Holders, farmworkers and essential workers like my parents,” said Palacios, 31.
Brenda Vargas, 24, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 7, also awaits answers on the DACA program. The Seminole woman entered the program after high school and now works at three part-time jobs — as an assistant at a bank, manager for a boutique and retail cashier.
Vargas is on track to graduate soon in business administration from St. Petersburg College. Her DACA permit expires in February. She hopes to submit her renewal application next week.
“I was able to save that money,” she said. “But it is not only the money. Now is a matter of time, too.”
Time is also a top concern for Joshua Contreras, 23, of Clearwater, a DACA recipient who also came from Mexico.
He entered the program in 2012 and had successfully renewed his permit ever since. That changed when it expired in May. He still awaits word on the application he submitted in March.
“I haven’t heard back from USCIS about my case,” Contreras said. “Unfortunately, my renewal is part of the backlog.”