LOS ANGELES >> The line stretches down the block before the sun rises in Los Angeles, made up of immigrants seeking help to renew their work permits under a program that has shielded them from deportation but is now nearing its end.
Ivan Vizueta, a 25-year-old from Long Beach, California, brought a folding chair and music to pass the time while waiting to renew his papers and get a new two-year permit that lets him work for a plumbing company and earn nearly double the amount he made at his old job. The lines have been a regular occurrence in recent days, with some people camping out as early as 3 a.m.
“I have to do this so I have another two years of safety,” said Vizueta, who was brought to the country nearly two decades ago from Mexico and hopes to run his own plumbing business someday.
For immigrants like Vizueta, it’s a race against the clock as they rush to renew their permits ahead of a looming Oct. 5 deadline set by the Trump administration. After that date, no one else can renew under a program that has let nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States as children work even though they lack legal papers.
The work permits have been a lifeline for many young immigrants who have been educated in American schools and know no other home than the United States. The program created by President Barack Obama in 2012 also protected these immigrants, many of them in their 20s, from being deported to countries they hardly remember. Critics call it an illegal amnesty program that is taking jobs from U.S. citizens.
When President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program this month, he gave Congress six months to draft a more lasting fix. Democratic leaders and Trump said they have reached a deal to protect the immigrants, but Congress has since turned its focus to overhauling the tax code. Democratic congressional leaders say they are waiting on the White House to craft a legislative proposal.
Meanwhile, immigrant advocates around the country have been urging the Trump administration to extend the Oct. 5 deadline and holding legal clinics and donating money to help immigrants cover the $500 renewal fee.
Jesus Perez of Phoenix says he’s not sure he would have been able to come up with the cash in time to renew were it not for the financial help of an advocacy group that is among several giving financial aid and helping people fill out their paperwork in time. The 30-year-old father of three, with one on the way, was just approved to buy a home but can’t complete the purchase until his renewal comes through.
“You’re in limbo,” said Perez, who works at a car wash and hopes to open his own business soon.
In Las Vegas, fewer than 30 people have asked for a service provided by the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, causing alarm among organizers who are fearful immigrants are staying in the shadows or waiting too close to the deadline. The government must receive the renewal paperwork by Oct. 5, meaning it needs to be sent in most cases by this weekend.
“If you are not at the post office with an express mail envelope in your hand on the morning of Oct. 2, you are too late,” said Michael Kagan, director of the Las Vegas clinic.
Only immigrants whose permits are expiring before March 5, 2018, are eligible to apply for renewals. Those whose permits expire starting on March 6 will not be able to renew. The government estimates there are about 154,000 recipients whose permits expire between Sept. 5, 2017, when the Trump administration announced the end of the program, and March 5.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said today that it had received 39,400 renewal applications since Sept. 5. The agency said it aims to have a 120-day turnaround to complete the applications.
At the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, advocates have helped about 40 immigrants a day renew their permits for free. Immigrants began lining up outside before dawn to ensure they were seen quickly, as some have had to wait until the afternoon or the next day for assistance due to the demand, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the organization.
Maria Moreno, 23, lined up at 3 a.m. outside the group’s offices on a recent morning to renew under the program, which has made it easier for her to work as a cashier and attend college to eventually become a special education teacher. She said her parents brought her to this country from Mexico when she was 10 months old.
“I’ve been here all my life,” said Moreno, who lives in Los Angeles. “I’ve never been back there, and I’m hoping not to go.”
Oscar Gaytan, a 22-year-old history and Chicano Studies student at University of California, Los Angeles, was also among those waiting in line. He said his permit under the program is valid until the end of next year but was stolen from his gym locker, forcing him to refile paperwork.
Gaytan said he hopes to go on to become a professor or immigration lawyer after graduation but knows he’ll need a work permit to do so.
“When Trump rescinded DACA, I was pretty upset,” said Gaytan, who was brought here from Mexico when he was 4. “But I feel like everything happens for a reason — so hopefully Congress acts.”
Associated Press Writer Regina Garcia Cano contributed to this report from Las Vegas.