About 95 young unauthorized immigrants showed up early Thursday morning at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles seeking legal help to renew their participation in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the federal program known as DACA.
All were hoping to take advantage of a federal court ruling last week that opened a window for those who want to sign up again for protection from deportation and work permits under DACA.
Kathy Khommarath stood in front of a room filled with about two dozen of the young immigrants, pointing to a federal work permit application projected on the wall.
"Next, have you ever before applied for employment authorization through USCIS?" she asked, as she walked the group through filling out a federal application for work authorization.
The Obama-era program lets roughly 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants, who arrived in the U.S. as children, live and work in the country legally. President Trump rescinded the program in September, and shut off renewals in October. But last week, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered the government to begin accepting renewal applications again, at least for now.
The Trump administration is appealing the decision and has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a review. In a statement earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions blasted the lower court's ruling on several California lawsuits aimed at stopping the termination of DACA, including those filed by the state and the University of California system.
Sessions decried how a decision by a single district court in San Francisco could apply to the entire country. In his statement, he said it "defies both law and common sense."
Seeing a limited legal window open, young immigrants whose DACA protection is about to expire — or already has — are lining up for help to fill out their renewal applications in a hurry.
At CHIRLA, two legal staffers coached the applicants on filling out their paperwork, talking to groups rather than individuals. Khommarath, a staff attorney, said this allowed CHIRLA to assist dozens of applicants at one time.
After the paperwork is filled out, Khommarath said she planned to read over the applications. "I'm going to review it for accuracy, compare it with their old applications...and all the documents they provided," she said.
CHIRLA spokesman Jorge Mario Cabrera said while the San Francisco court's ruling was welcome news, it caught legal service providers by surprise.
"We've had to basically set up a system again to renew DACAs, because we had basically closed the books on DACA renewals as of October 5th," he said.
That was the deadline for renewals set by the Trump administration after the president rescinded the program a month earlier. Only those whose DACA permits expired between Sept. 5 and this coming March 5 were allowed to renew one last time.
This left hundreds of thousands of others unable to renew. Others who were eligible to renew missed the deadline, or were rejected for mistakes made on their applications as they hustled to get them in.
At the pro bono legal firm Public Counsel, the staff has been focusing on cases like these, said Judy London, directing attorney of the firm's immigrant rights project.
"Not surprisingly, there were errors in some of these DACA renewal applications," London said. "For the most part, these errors were incredibly minor and, in our experience in the past, would not have had any ramifications."
But this time they did, she said. London said in one case, a young man who overpaid his renewal fee by $2 was rejected. When he later paid the correct fee, he was told he had missed the deadline, she said.
Many DACA recipients have hoped Congress will come up with a long-term solution to allow them to remain in the country legally. But there's been no agreement so far. President Trump recently said he would sign bipartisan legislation, but has since then rejected proposals for a compromise, insisting that any deal must include funding for a border wall.
Some lawmakers have threatened to withhold support for a short-term spending bill over the lack of agreement on DACA and other issues, which could lead to a government shutdown.
Mario Hernandez, 29, is not taking chances. While he said he preferred Congress would act, he renewed his DACA protection earlier this week. It was due to expire this summer.
“We don’t know what is going to happen," said Hernandez, who works in CHIRLA's call center. "As many chances as you have to be stable for the next two years, you should take them.”