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Immigrants known as Dreamers converged on Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to create a pathway to citizenship, a decade after the Obama administration first protected from deportation young people brought to the US as children.
Many with status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are holding out hope for legislation to make their futures in the US more certain, an effort that’s produced frustration for years. House Democrats most recently passed legislation (H.R. 6) to grant DACA recipients legal status last year, but longtime Republican hostility to any program they see as amnesty has stymied action in the Senate.
“Hope is the only thing we have,” Zuleyma Barajas, membership and volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, told reporters Wednesday as she and hundreds of other DACA recipients fanned out on Capitol Hill. “If we didn’t have hope and we didn’t fight for what we deserve and what we need, then we wouldn’t be getting anything.”
DACA provides deportation protection and work authorization for more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants.
Democrats recently tried to advance protections for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants in a partisan budget package. That effort fell apart months ago. New bipartisan immigration talks are underway, but senators have been wary of over-promising.
Top negotiator Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said during a hearing this week that the Biden administration was making the process tougher by failing to tighten border security.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another top negotiator, who backs DACA legislation, said “we’ve never been able to get it to the president’s desk, but we’re not giving up.”
Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) said her own bill (H.R. 6637) offers a way forward on providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants while tightening border security. The bill may provide a roadmap for Republicans to take action on immigration if they take control of the House from Democrats after the midterm elections.
“We are gaining traction,” Salazar said after a DACA press conference Wednesday. “We are making inroads within the GOP because the Republicans are understanding that Hispanics — 23% of the population, the largest minority in the country — have the same values that are entrenched in the Republican Party.”
DACA recipients, lawmakers, and advocates pushing for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers have been on a political roller coaster since the Obama administration crafted DACA via a secretarial order in 2012.
The program survived an initial round of legal challenges only to have the Trump administration announce plans to terminate it. That effort failed when the Supreme Court ruled the Department of Homeland Security hadn’t gone through proper procedures to end DACA.
The legal and political turbulence have buffeted DACA recipients’ futures.
“I’ve been a chess piece my entire life,” Flavia Negrete, a DACA recipient in Maryland, said in an interview. “I want to believe that they’re going to do something, and I know they can do something.”
Legal action again threatens to sideline the policy. A federal district court last year ruled the program was created unlawfully. The judge allowed DACA recipients to retain their status, for now, but barred new applicants.
The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is due to review the case next month, and many advocates are prepared for a loss, which would take the case to the conservative-majority Supreme Court. The Biden administration is working on a regulation to “fortify” DACA, but it could fall short if top courts agree that DHS lacks authority to put the program in place.
Some DACA recipients see a sliver of optimism in the Fifth Circuit case, even if the judges, who frequently have ruled against the Biden administration on immigration, deal the program a fatal blow.
That might be just what lawmakers need to finally take action, DACA recipient Enrique Sanchez said.
“It’s a terrible situation because we again are being put in limbo about our status,” he said in an interview. “But seeing the positive out of it, it’s putting it back in the spotlight.”
DACA recipient Andrea Rathbone Ramos has seen how court decisions can swing the sense of urgency on Capitol Hill. She recalls making progress with lawmakers after the Trump administration announced DACA’s demise, only to see their interest wane as soon as a federal court stepped in to preserve the program.
This time, a court decision could increase resolve on Capitol Hill, she said in an interview Tuesday. Rathbone Ramos and Sanchez now work for the American Business Immigration Coalition, a bipartisan group.
Other political dynamics could also shake up the stalemate. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) accused Republicans of embracing “performative politics” at DACA recipients’ expense, but said she hopes some retiring Senate Republicans will be open to bipartisan measures before they leave office.
“A perfect mix of political power is timing,” said Greisa Martinez, executive director of the advocacy group United We Dream. “It took many years for the Voting Rights Act to be to be a thing, it took many years for women to be able to have bodily autonomy, and it’s going to take a little while to ensure that there’s undocumented immigrants having citizenship in the US.”
Rathbone Ramos sometimes struggles to keep the faith after years of battles in Congress. “‘We’re going to get it this year,’ or ‘It’s finally going to happen this year,’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?” she said.