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Does The Supreme Court Ruling On DACA Open Up Applications Again? Questions Remain

Kathia Garcia is a DACA recipient who feels relieved and happy that others like her will be able to continue receiving DACA protection. She and others gathered to cheer the Supreme Court's decision at L.A.'s MacArthur Park on Thursday. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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In 2017, Los Angeles teenager Rotzely had just turned 15, making her eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shields many young immigrants from deportation and allows them to work legally in the U.S..

That was also the year President Trump entered office. In September 2017, Trump announced he was dismantling the program known as DACA, which at its height enrolled 800,000 young people without legal immmigration status who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Rotzely, who asked LAist not to use her last name for fear of deportation, was devastated that she had to put aside the application she had started.

"It was just overall scary because I had no protection and during that time I felt that anytime me and my family could be broken up," said Rotzely, who came with her parents from Mexico when she was three months old.

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Now, nearly three years later, Rotzely is straightening out her application. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling Thursday upheld DACA, saying that the Trump administration had acted in an "arbitrary" and "capricious" way in how it tried to end the program.

That's good news for the 650,000 immigrants currently in the DACA program -- including an estimated 200,000 in California. They've been able to renew their DACA status -- which is good for two years -- even as the program has teetered in legal limbo since 2017, with lower courts blocking the rescission and the Trump administration appealing those decisions.

Legal experts said they believe the ruling also opens the program up to new applicants like Rotzely.

"The memo (from the Trump administration) that was terminating DACA has been vacated," said Araceli Martínez-Olguín, supervising attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. "What that leaves is the original memo that announced DACA in the first place. So USCIS should soon be accepting (applications) and processing them."

CHIRLA Staff put a banner on a vehicle before a DACA car rally begins Thursday at MacArthur Park. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)
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But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing DACA applications, has not commented yet on whether it will accept new applicants -- let alone when. There was no guidance provided in a statement from the agency today. Instead it focused on the Supreme Court ruling:

"Today's court opinion has no basis in law and merely delays the President's lawful ability to end the illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program."

Marisa Cianciarulo, an immigration expert at Chapman University's Fowler School of Law, said there is a lot of uncertainty about how USCIS will handle new applications given the Trump's administration's opposition to the program.

"I don't know what that means in terms of how much staff power they're going to give to any new applications that come in," Cianciarulo said.

At Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, Victoria Dominguez is advising would-be applicants to have a conversation first with an immigration specialist at organizations like hers. She expects that more people will inquire about applying to DACA in the coming days and weeks.

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"Hopefully by that time, we're going to have more information from the USCIS regarding the kind of procedures and protocols moving forward," Dominguez said.

Eli Cortez drives his convertible in support of DACA at the car rally in MacArthur Park. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

But some other immigrant rights groups aren't waiting for federal guidelines before submitting DACA applications they've helped prepare.

At the Coalition For Humane Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, legal services director Luis Perez said Thursday he was putting together a package of DACA applications that have been sitting in their files since 2017.

"Even though we have no instructions, we know this to be the right thing," Perez said.

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It's been eight years this week since the Obama administration first announced the DACA program. By August 2012, the first applications were in. DACA recipients have included young immigrants born not only in Latin America, but from a long list of countries including South Korea, the Philippines, India, Poland and Nigeria.

In the time leading up to the Supreme Court's decision, organizations like CHIRLA were advising existing DACA recipients to renew their protection before it expired. The thinking? That if the court were to rule unfavorably, this could at least buy them some time before their protection was phased out.

On Thursday, immigrant advocates renewed that call, warning that the administration could still try to dismantle DACA, especially if Trump is re-elected.

Rotzely said she used to be scared of Trump after he rescinded DACA.

"I felt like he could do anything with his power, that he could always come after me," she said.

But in the years since she has gotten involved in organizing and joined CHIRLA. And she said that she's hopeful once she gets DACA, she will be able to get a job and afford to buy treats and gifts for her younger siblings.

But even if the Supreme Court did not rule for DACA recipients, she said she knew she was going to be okay.

"I found a way to fight myself, and finally give myself a voice," Rotzely said.