The paperwork was mailed from New York in plenty of time. On Sept. 14, Allison Baker, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, sent a client's application to renew a permit that would let him stay and work in the United States legally as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — long before the Oct. 5 deadline. It was sent certified mail to be safe.
Tracking data from the U.S. Postal Service shows the envelope arriving in Chicago on Sept. 16 on its way to the regional processing warehouse of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers the program known as DACA.
Then the packet started circling Chicago in a mysterious holding pattern. From Sept. 17 to 19, it was "in transit to destination." Then its tracking whereabouts disappeared until Oct. 4. Once again, it was "on its way."
On Oct. 6, a day too late, it was delivered. And the application, for a 24-year-old man who asked to be identified only as José because his legal status was uncertain, was rejected.
José was not alone. According to lawyers from across the New York region, in at least 33 other cases, unusually long Postal Service delays resulted in rejections of DACA applications, throwing the lives of their clients into frantic limbo. Lawyers in Boston and Philadelphia, which also send their applications to the Chicago processing center, say they have not seen evidence of an issue with the mail.
But in Chicago, in the back yard of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, there were at least 21 DACA recipients whose renewals, sent well before the deadline, arrived late, according to Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill. An applicant sent a renewal Sept. 13 and it arrived Oct. 6. Another sent the paperwork Sept. 21, and it was received Oct. 9. "Because somebody else did not do their job correctly, we are taking innocent young immigrants and making them deportable," Gutiérrez said. "That is unacceptable."
On Thursday, in a rare admission from a federal agency, the U.S. Postal Service took the blame. David A. Partenheimer, a spokesman for thePostal Service, said there had been an "unintentional temporary mail processing delay in the Chicago area."
But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency said nothing more could be done; the decisions were final.
"According to USCIS regulations, a request is considered received by USCIS as of the actual date of receipt at the location for filing such request," Steve Blando, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in a statement. He added: "USCIS is not responsible for the mail service an individual chooses, or for delays on the part of mail service providers."
He later added, though, that "USCIS is committed to working with the USPS to understand and address the USPS error that occurred that delayed the mail."
Because DACA is an executive order, signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, and not a statute, applicants cannot appeal the decision. Still, immigrants and their advocates viewed the agency's unwillingness to revisit the cases as harsh and unfair.
"You can't put the burden on the applicant to ensure the government agencies did their job," said Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives for the New York Immigration Coalition. "Can you imagine if the IRS didn't pick up their mail for two weeks and you get a penalty because of it?"
The DACA program had offered temporary protection and work permits for about 800,000 young adults who had been brought to the United States illegally as children.
On Sept. 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced after months of speculation that the Trump administration was canceling the program.
According to an Oct. 18 deposition of an immigration official conducted as part of a federal lawsuit in Brooklyn, 4,000 DACA applications arrived late. Some 154,000 people were eligible to apply for renewal and 132,000 applications were received on time.