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'Limbo of DACA' weighs heavy on hundreds of thousands of eligible youths left out of the program

On the 11th anniversary of DACA, as many as 400,000 people who would be eligible to apply have been shut out because of legal challenges.
Photo of the Supreme Court with orange overlay, next to photo of demonstrators gathered in support of DACA with blue overlay. One supporter holds a sign reading "Save DACA #Heretostay."
Since 2021, new applicants have been blocked from accessing DACA and nearly 93,000 first-time applications have been stalled.  Owen Berg / NBC News

Hundreds of thousands of DACA-eligible people have been shut out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has helped young immigrants access better-paying jobs and educational opportunities and protected them from deportation.

On Thursday, as DACA marked its 11th anniversary, the fate of the program remained up in the air as a six-year court battle plays out following legal challenges from the Trump administration and Republican-led states seeking to fully end it.

In 2021, a federal judge in Texas decided to leave DACA open for current recipients and blocked new applicants from accessing the program.

Since then, an estimated 400,000 people who would have been eligible to apply for the first time haven’t had access to the program, according to an analysis by, a bipartisan group supporting immigration reform.

About 580,000 current recipients have been able to continue to renew their DACA status every two years.

"This limbo of DACA not only impacts those who currently have DACA, but those who qualify, those who were in line trying to get their DACA," said Catherine Lee, the national communications manager at United We Dream, the country’s largest immigrant youth-led organization.

The Obama-era program has allowed eligible young immigrants who lack legal status after having been brought to the U.S. as children, also referred to as Dreamers, to work and study without fear of deportation.

Among the 400,000 DACA-eligible population who have been shut out, people like Aurora Lozano Chavez and Julian Cornejo stand out.

Lozano Chavez and Cornejo are two of the nearly 93,000 first-time applicants who have been left in limbo for the past two years. These DACA-eligible people had submitted the necessary paperwork and paid the required $495 fee to apply for the program shortly before the federal judge in Texas closed the program for new applicants.

The DACA approval letter Cornejo and Lozano Chavez had been waiting for won’t come unless the ruling is reversed, effectively allowing first-time applications to be processed.

“I was very far ahead into the process,” said Lozano Chavez, 24, of San Antonio, who applied for DACA in 2021.

She had even gone to the Citizenship and Immigration Services office to get her biometrics entered, one of the last steps in the application process, when authorities take applicants’ photos and fingerprints.

She waited a month for an approval letter that never came. Instead, she found out through social media that DACA had been shut down for first-time applicants like her.

“That was unfortunate,” she recalled.

Lozano Chavez said she feels “like I’ve missed out on many things” as she waits to see whether DACA will ever reopen to accept new applicants.

“Many of my friends and family members who have had DACA, they already finished school, they’ve received their bachelor’s, they’ve had promotions at their jobs, they’re able to help out their family financially,” Lozano Chavez said. “With this whole DACA ordeal, it’s been kind of hard to be able to help my family financially and go back to school.”

With a sister who has to continue working while she battles leukemia and a mother with a thyroid condition, Lozano Chavez often finds herself wishing she could do more to support her family.

“It’s just really difficult on our part, because I’m 24 years old, I’m physically able to work, but unfortunately, I can’t work due to my status,” she said.

Cornejo, 23, of Miami, applied for DACA just four months before first-time applications were frozen.

He had planned to enroll in college, pursue a career in health care and get a driver’s license once his application was approved.

Over two years later, Cornejo continues to hold on to his plans.

“It can get frustrating at times,” he said. “But I still want to be able to study in the future and have more doors open up, because where I’m standing right now, everything is very limited to me.”

Lee said most of the people left out of DACA are in their late teens or early 20s and are trying to jump-start their lives.

“These younger people who are graduating high school, some are even graduating community college or receiving a bachelor’s degree. They're all unsure of what their next step is, or could be, because they don’t have access to a work permit,” Lee said. “Additionally, DACA provides protections from deportation.

"That is a constant threat and a fear that these individuals are living with, as they don’t have any certainty of protections in this country,” she added.

Protecting DACA and going beyond it

The political action movement of Dreamers didn’t start with the creation of DACA 11 years ago.

The Dream Act was introduced in Congress in the early 2000s. It sought to provide legal status and eligibility for citizenship to more than 1 million undocumented children and youths.

The movement strengthened throughout the years as Dreamers fought to get Congress to pass the Dream Act. When that didn't happen, President Barack Obama used his executive power to create DACA in 2012.

This month, attorneys representing DACA recipients and the Republican-led states suing to terminate DACA returned to court to debate a recent Biden administration rule that turned the program into a federal regulation to increase its chances of surviving legal challenges. The federal judge who heard the arguments in Texas is expected to issue a decision about the legality of the Biden rule this year.

“It’s important that we do protect DACA and what it does provide in the moment, but it’s also so important that we expand on what we have, so that ultimately there’s a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants,” Lee said.

Despite greater hurdles without DACA, Lozano Chavez earned an associate degree a few years ago and plans to go back to school this fall. She will attend Texas A&M University-San Antonio to study child psychology.

"We deserve more than just DACA," she said. "We've been waiting years and years. We deserve a pathway to citizenship."