Immigrants scramble to complete paperwork amid hurricanes

As Harvey struck Houston, Esti Garza fled her home with a change of clothes, a Bible and her immigration paperwork.

Days later, she brought several manila envelopes containing the documents to a Houston office where lawyers and immigrants sat in pairs around a long conference room table.

Having just survived Harvey, they had moved on to the next urgent matter in their lives: rushing to get their applications renewed for a program protecting young immigrants that the White House began dismantling this week.

“You’re just trying to cope with everything all at once,” said the 20-year-old Garza, whose family was forced out of their home for a week due to the flooding. “First your residence, and now your legal status.”

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that his administration would begin phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that grants a temporary reprieve from deportation to nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The program will no longer take new applicants, but current participants whose permits are set to expire in the next six months are allowed to submit renewal applications by Oct. 5.

The deadline set off an immediate scramble for tens of thousands of immigrants to renew their applications over the next four weeks, most dramatically in Houston and Miami as they deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and threat of Hurricane Irma.

In Texas, Harvey displaced thousands of people, flooded roads, destroyed homes and shut down many lawyers’ offices for several days. Irma is threatening to do the same to Florida. Texas has about 124,000 DACA recipients, and Florida more than 30,000.

“The window of time is extremely short already without this natural disaster,” said Sui Chung, an immigration lawyer in Miami.

In Houston, Catholic Charities is assisting people at its open sessions for immigrants seeking legal aid — known as “charlas,” or chats in Spanish. The charity is helping them replace documents lost in Harvey’s floodwaters, apply for federal emergency aid and expedite applications under the deferred action program.

Juan Leija pointed to a pile of debris outside his partly flooded-out home. The pile was full of things he had saved up to buy. But he had been sure to pack his paperwork in a backpack before evacuating.

The 21-year-old said he doesn’t know what will happen with the program, and “that scares me because I don’t know what is to come,” he said.

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