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Immigrants scramble to complete paperwork amid hurricanes

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2017 file photo, Maria Rodriguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, leads a group attending a rally to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in front of the MDC Freedom Tower in Miami. Young immigrants in Houston and Miami are scrambling to complete their renewal applications for a program shielding them from deportation while dealing with hurricanes that have hit or are bearing down on their states. An Oct. 5 deadline was announced this week by the Trump administration. It set off an immediate scramble among many of the nearly 800,000 people protected by the DACA program, most notably in Texas and Florida. (Pedro Portal /Miami Herald via AP, File)
September 08, 2017 - 12:45 PM

HOUSTON - 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, she had moved on to the next urgent matter in her life: rushing to get her application 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.

Similar events are happening in other cities, albeit under less chaotic circumstances. Mexican consulates are ramping up free legal services, while a leading immigration group in Arizona started an online fundraiser to help applicants pay the $495 fee required to renew under the program. Another is holding three DACA "drives" in which volunteer attorneys plan to help applicants fill out paperwork.

Around one-quarter of DACA recipients — about 200,000 people — have permits that will expire before December, according to government figures.

Renewing under DACA requires several forms, a copy of an applicant's previous work authorization under the program, and the filing fee. Some immigrants hire lawyers to help with the process.

People who lost their work authorization form in the floods might be able to get a copy from their lawyer's office or their school or employer. Participants in the program must be employed or taking classes.

"If you had to recreate it from scratch, I don't know if you could pull it off in less than a month," said Ruby Powers, a Houston attorney. "I think that would be quite difficult."

A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes program applications, said its field offices in Texas and Florida would expedite the replacement process for anyone who lost their previous work authorization, but it would not grant extra time beyond the Oct. 5 deadline.

Catholic Charities has scheduled 13 sessions in Houston for DACA recipients before Oct. 5. Among the people helping Thursday was Esau Vargas, a 34-year-old Catholic Charities employee who is part of the program himself.

"I used to work in a restaurant. Now I work as a legal caseworker," Vargas said.

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Associated Press writers Astrid Galvan in Phoenix and John L. Mone in Houston contributed to this report.

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