“Undocumented Youth Are Not Bargaining Chips,” Say Dreamers Arrested on Capitol Hill

Dreamers risked everything by being arrested on Capitol Hill, but some Democrats have failed to take up their cause.

Protesters fill the waiting room of Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to demand that the Senate pass a clean DREAM Act, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Protesters fill the waiting room of Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to demand that the Senate pass a clean DREAM Act, on Capitol Hill on Dec. 19, 2017, in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Erika Andiola breathed a sign of relief as she walked outside of a Washington, D.C. jail on Wednesday night. She had spent five days there but avoided her worst nightmare — being handed over to immigration authorities.

Andiola, 30, made national headlines when she was arrested on Capitol Hill last Friday along with a group of Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors who won protections under an Obama-era program rescinded by President Donald Trump. Capitol Police arrested the seven Dreamers and one ally, after they staged a sit-in outside the offices of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. Andiola and her fellow protesters were on a hunger strike while in jail, and her Facebook post about being detained went viral over the weekend.

The group was demanding that Schumer and Curbelo vote against a must-pass federal spending bill unless it contains a measure known as the DREAM Act, which would bring protections for Dreamers, without any compromises on harsher immigration policies.

“Our lives are at stake,” said Andiola, a former presidential campaign staffer for Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in an interview with The Intercept minutes after she left jail. “Undocumented youth are not bargaining chips.”

“We were very clear: Don’t throw our Dreamers under the bus.”

In a sign of intra-party tension on the issue, more than a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus followed the Dreamers’ lead and stormed Schumer’s office Thursday afternoon before demanding answers for the delay on measure addressing the Dreamers. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., told Bloomberg that Schumer had agreed more Senate Democrats should vote down the bill but said he feared the party being blamed for a government shutdown. “We were very clear: Don’t throw our Dreamers under the bus,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., said after the meeting.

On Thursday evening, a day after the Dreamer activists were released, Congress passed a temporary stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. The bill merely extends government funding until January 19 and did not include any measures on the Dreamers. Schumer and Curbelo kept their word by voting against the bill, but reports circulated Thursday evening indicating that Schumer had failed to whip his caucus against the bill. Seventeen Democrats voted for the bill in the Senate, allowing the measure to pass without any fix for the Dreamers.

Andiola was 11 when her mother came to the U.S. from Durango, Mexico, with her and her four siblings, to escape domestic violence. At the time, Andiola said, she was old enough to realize she was undocumented, a fact that didn’t stop her from excelling in school and landing seven college scholarships. Andiola said she became politically active when, in 2006, Arizona passed a referendum that prohibited in-state tuition rates for undocumented students — a near-fatal blow to her chances of pursuing a college degree.

Andiola’s fate and that of the nation’s nearly 700,000 Dreamers lies with Congress after Trump’s September decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program granted Dreamers work permits and, while not providing them formal legal status, gave them protection against deportation. Widespread public support for Dreamers has put pressure on Congress to act to codify DACA protections before a temporary extension of the program expires in March.

Politico reported this week that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly met with a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday to hammer out a compromise. The proposed deal, according to Politico, would include security measures – such as expanding the existing border fence – and would not be considered until January.

“It’s 2017. We are sick of waiting. We are sick of empty words.”

The Dreamers said any promise for a deal in an election year is unlikely, and they oppose tacking on other harsh immigration policies. Politicians “have been telling us since 2001 that they want to pass a DREAM Act,” said Li Adorno, a 24-year-old community organizer who was among those arrested. “It’s 2017. We are sick of waiting. We are sick of empty words.”

The group’s decision to protest outside Curbelo and Schumer’s offices was strategic, said Adorno. Both members of Congress have been outspoken supporters of passing a law with DACA-like protections in this congressional session. Curbelo has been one of the few members of the Republican caucus to demand a legislative solution before the year’s end. For his part, Schumer has heavily criticized Trump’s decision to end DACA and made numerous predictions that a clean DREAM Act – without compromises like the border fence – would reach the president’s desk by December 31. In recent weeks, however, Schumer has backed off from that pledge as Democrats up for re-election in more conservative states in 2018 have pushed back.

In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson said Curbelo remained committed to finding a bipartisan solution. “He’s pledged to withhold his support for any spending past December 31 until action is taken on a solution,” the statement reads. “[The Dreamers have] lived in fear for far too long and it is past time leadership in both Chambers allow a solution to come to the floor.”

The Intercept reached out on several occasions to Schumer’s office but was not provided comment.

The Dreamers on Capitol Hill criticized Schumer along with other Democrats who they said have staged photo-ops with Dreamers to distance themselves from Trump’s hawkish immigration policy, but have failed to have the courage to actually force his hand. “We don’t want photo-ops,” said Juan Carlos Carabantes, 22, who came to the U.S. when he was 4 years old. “We want action.”

Top photo: Protesters fill the waiting room of the office of Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to demand that the Senate pass a clean DREAM Act, on Capitol Hill on Dec. 19, 2017, in Washington.

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