As mandated by the USCIS, recipients must have their applications approved by that two-year deadline, not just filed. Macedo do Nascimento says DACA recipients also have to pay to renew their driver’s license, which expires in two-year increments alongside their DACA status. It’s up to recipients to account for any unforeseen delay or backlog at the federal level too, which means managing unpredictable wait times that can last for months. If applicants miscalculate or USCIS simply takes longer than expected, recipients’ DACA status could lapse. They risk immediately losing employment, financial aid, and more, in addition to being at-risk for deportation.

“You sort of play a bit of a gamble of renewing close to your expiration date because it could mean you’re getting less time for your money,” says Ronnie, who is now 24. He tells Teen Vogue that his DACA renewal was approved just days ago, a few weeks before his status would have expired on June 9. 

Several years ago, though, his DACA nearly lapsed while he was waiting on USCIS to process his application, almost costing him his job. “I lived, at that time, paycheck to paycheck,” Ronnie says. “My head was going a mile a minute trying to figure out how I can toe the line with what I was dealt with. I just had to wait. All I could do was show that I’m waiting on [USCIS] to process my application. There was nothing else that I could do.”

“We have a member in California who was a teacher, and she lost her job,” Macedo do Nascimento says. “We have nurses during the pandemic who lost their jobs because USCIS didn’t process their applications in time.”

Many DACA hopefuls share this experience of being left in the dark mid-process. Following the indefinite pause on DACA applications under Trump in 2017, a series of legal challenges allowed the program to continue for renewals but maintained the pause on first-time applicants. USCIS began officially accepting new filers for the first time in December of 2020.

Valdez jumped on that announcement. Again, she and her stepfather got their paperwork and application fees together, and they filed that December; he filed his application a few days after she did.

In July 2021, a ruling by a federal judge in Texas forced USCIS to stop accepting and processing new applications yet again. At that point, in the first six months of 2021, only 5,368 first-time applicants had been approved for DACA, with 83,653 first-time applications pending as of the end of June 2021, according to USCIS data. That summer, Valdez finally got word: She was approved, but her stepfather’s application was stuck in limbo.

“I just felt terrible. I felt really bad,” Valdez remembers. “It was like this golden ticket that I no longer wanted because I felt like, you know, I didn’t deserve it more than anyone else.”

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