Nancy Flores Sanchez, who teaches first grade at Cesar Chavez K-8 School, almost could not start work due to processing delays.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nancy Flores Sanchez, who teaches first grade at Cesar Chavez K-8 school, holds back tears while sharing her frustration of awaiting renewal of her DACA status from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nancy Flores Sanchez should have been setting up her classroom and preparing for the new school year at Cesar Chaves K-8 School. Instead, she was put on leave by Portland Public Schools.

Flores Sanchez has been with the school since before she graduated college. Now, five years after she started working at Cesar Chavez, Flores Sanchez began back-to-school week without knowing if she'd be there for her new class. Flores Sanchez is a DACA recipient, and processing delays by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, meant she couldn't work.

Finally, on Monday, Aug. 30, the news came: Flores Sanchez got her renewal.

Let the class year begin.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a U.S. immigration policy that gives protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

Flores Sanchez submitted her application to renew her DACA status on March 31, knowing it would expire on July 25. She knew school didn't start until Sept. 1, so this would be plenty of time for the federal agency to process her renewal, she thought, based on her other experiences renewing it.

The agency received her application on April 5. As weeks and eventually months went by, her DACA status was still not renewed. Then it was July 25, and her status was set to expire. Still nothing from the agency.

"Inside, I'm just panicking," Flores Sanchez said. "It's like this impending sense of doom that I wasn't going to be able to work, I wasn't going to be able to teach, I wasn't going to be able to set up my classroom and see my students, and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse."

A USCIS spokesperson said, "Our goal is to process DACA renewal requests within 120 days and renewals are currently being processed within the normal timeframes necessary for adjudication. Despite the challenges of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS's Historical Data shows the median processing time for DACA renewals and associated (employment authorization documents) through July 31 of FY2021 is less than two months.

"We are committed to minimizing processing delays to help facilitate access to immigration benefits and restore confidence in our immigration system," the spokesperson said, and USCIS is "actively working to preserve and fortify DACA."

The processing time for individual cases could be affected because a DACA requestor needs to respond to a request for evidence or visit an application support center for biometrics services, the spokesperson said.

But Flores Sanchez didn't need any of that, her lawyer, Sherilyn Holcombe Waxler, said.

As the delay stretched, school officials told Flores Sanchez that they were going to start looking for a substitute teacher.

"That hurt," she said. But it's not the school's fault, she said, because her work status is dependent on what happens with the federal agency.

And it's not just Flores Sanchez who's impacted by her inability to work. She said she was disappointed that she wouldn't be there for her students and their families.

"It's hard for these kids to connect to certain people, and the parents," she said. "I remember with my parents, I had to translate for them when I was little for school stuff. They didn't understand any of that stuff."

Flores Sanchez helps translate for parents at PTA meetings, and she helps translate for other teachers who need to communicate with parents who only speak Spanish. "Because I know how important it is," she said.

But she said the bureaucratic red tape also affects her students, who might have had to get used to things without their regular teacher and then adjust when she finally can return.

"They've been through so much inconsistency already (with the pandemic). It's not fair for them to be missing out on that," Flores Sanchez said.

"I love this community so much," she said.

Flores Sanchez and Holcombe Waxler have been trying to get ahold of USCIS and fix the problem. Holcombe Waxler said she couldn't even submit an inquiry about the renewal application because USCIS's processing time for the form is about 5 to 5.5 months, and it hasn't quite been five months since Flores Sanchez submitted the form. Holcombe Waxler even contacted state legislature for help.

Nothing was working to get the employment authorization, until Monday, Aug 30, at 10:31 a.m. That's when Holcombe Waxler got an email that the application had been approved.

They don't know why it finally happened — if USCIS finally got to it or if it was something else — but both said they're so glad Flores Sanchez will get to be with her students, and the students will get to be with her.

"I cried, my principal cried," Flores Sanchez said. "A lot of my coworkers were just in tears because they were unbelievably relieved. I felt so supported and loves by everyone in my school," she said.

"But there's a little part of be that's still upset just because I know that I'm not the only one going through this. Nobody should have to deal with this," she said.

Now, Holcombe Waxler is working with PPS to see if they'll accept the email as proof of the approved work authorization, since usually Flores Sanchez would have a physical copy.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nancy Flores Sanchez, who teaches first grade at Cesar Chavez K-8 school, moves furniture to prepare for the first  day of school. Flores Sanchez was volunteering and not getting paid since Portland Public Schools put her on leave until her DACA status was renewed.

Red tape

Holcombe Waxler said she's also happy about the approval, but this is still something that shouldn't have happened. Flores Sanchez was notified two days before school started — five months after she mailed in her renewal application.

Much of the application process make little sense to Holcombe Waxler and Flores Sanchez, they said.

Holcombe Waxler, an immigration lawyer, is familiar with DACA and helped Flores Sanchez apply for her renewal in March. There are a lot of complexities with the timing of applying to renew one's DACA status, Holcombe Waxler said, but Flores Sanchez's application was filed in a timely manner.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recommends that recipients file to renew DACA between 120 and 150 days before the current period expires. An application sooner than 150 days could result in the current DACA period and the next one overlapping, according to the USCIS website. This happens because the new DACA period starts on the day the renewal is confirmed rather than the day the old period is set to expire. When this happens, DACA recipients still have to pay the $495 fee, even though they didn't get their money's worth on the last two-year period.

"That's like taking advantage of people," Flores Sanchez said.

Essentially, Holcombe Waxler said, people have to renew DACA every 1.5 years rather than every two years to be confident it will work out.

COVID-19-related delays at the federal agency made it so, if a recipient applied for a renewal within that 30-day period — between 120 and 150 days before their status expires — it is still possible the recipient would be without DACA status for a period in between. If someone submitted an application exactly 150 days — about five months — before their status expired, that would still leave almost two weeks in which the agency is still processing the application: two weeks where that person could not work.

"If processing times are going to be 5.5 months, then there should be an automatic extension," Holcombe Waxler said.

According to the agency website, other categories on the USCIS Application for Employment Authorization form are eligible for automatic extensions, but not DACA.

"I don't know why that isn't the case," Holcombe Waxler said.

Adding DACA to the list of work authorizations with automatic extensions would be a short-term solution, Holcombe Waxler said. "Of course, the real solution is to have a path toward citizenship for Dreamers and for Congress to move forward on that."

The federal DACA program and similar efforts at the state level often are referred to as "the Dream Act," and DACA recipients are referred to as "Dreamers."

President Barack Obama made DACA a priority of his administration and President Joe Biden promised to do so as well. But in July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA is illegal and ordered the Biden administration to stop granting new applications. Democrats in Washington, D.C., have sought a permanent solution for granting citizenship for immigrants brought to the United States as children. But so far, that effort is mired in political infighting.

"I'm 36. I've been here since I was like 4 or 5 years old," Flores Sanchez said. "So, I've been waiting for that for 30 some years. It's not working. So hopefully, soon, I won't have to wait another 30 years."

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