Just weeks ago, immigration reform was all Congress could talk about. But in the whirlwind that is Washington politics, lawmakers’ attention spans can be short, and they’ve moved on from looking in earnest for a solution for 800,000 “Dreamers” — immigrants whose protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program President Donald Trump rescinded last year.
Trump had given Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution for DACA. That deadline has, of course, come and gone, though the president’s decision to end DACA has been stalled by the courts. But for the young immigrants who have known no home other than the United States, the fight for their lives remains in full swing.
For the last six months, the Dreamers have been visibly lobbying on Capitol Hill. They’ve held rallies to protest Trump’s canceling of DACA. They’ve organized online and traveled to Washington from around the country, chanting in the halls of Congress and staging sit-ins, risking arrest.
“It’s good to have Dreamers that are lobbying and scheduling meetings and dressed in suit and ties, professionally,” said Adrian Escarate, a 29-year-old professional tennis coach from Miami. “And then there’s the other side, the Dreamers that are doing the sit-ins and taking over congressional offices. … I think both need to be done, just hopefully it’s enough to get us across the finish line.”
The Dreamers’ continued advocacy puts into focus the failures of the Democratic leadership.
For Escarte, it’s personal. He’s a Dreamer himself and has made several trips to Washington in recent months to meet with lawmakers, including when he attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. The meetings in Congress, organized by the advocacy group FWD.us, he said, were meant to give Dreamers an opportunity to tell their story, “put a face to the issue,” and get members of Congress “a little bit more on our side.”
Because the political conversation surrounding immigration reform is so polarizing, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pointing fingers at each other and at the White House, the determination of the young people at the heart of the DACA debate is often left out of the conversation. The Dreamers’ continued advocacy puts into focus the failures of the Democratic leadership, which has vowed repeatedly to prioritize immigration, but has been willing to sacrifice very little to see a legislative fix to DACA through to the end.
Congress, after passing a stopgap funding measure to end a government shutdown last month, has until March 23 to pass an omnibus spending bill. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “pathetic” that Congress had failed to act on DACA and was “using the courts as an excuse.” The Senate indeed failed to pass each of the four immigration bills that were put up to a vote last month, but Trump, for his part, threatened to veto several bipartisan attempts to save DACA — even ones that offered funding for his border wall.
Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested using the next omnibus as a point of leverage to extend DACA protections, possibly their last chance to do so ahead of the midterm elections. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a staunch advocate for Dreamer protections, said on Tuesday that Democrats won’t be taking that approach.
“I think the omnibus needs to be considered on its own merits, and then we ought to move ahead on DACA,” Hoyer said. “You know, the courts have given us some breathing room on DACA. I don’t think we oughta take the breathing room, I think we oughta act,” Hoyer said. House Speaker Paul Ryan “had been telling me for three or four months, ‘Oh, no we have plenty of time.’ Well I knew we didn’t have plenty of time.”
There is a disconnect between Hoyer’s sense of urgency and the steps Democrats have taken in recent months to enact actual change.
But there is a disconnect between Hoyer’s sense of urgency and the steps Democrats have taken in recent months to enact actual change. In December, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Congress wouldn’t leave town for the holidays without a DACA fix. But the House and Senate ended up approving stopgap spending bills to avert a government shutdown just a few days before Christmas, disregarding calls to use the spending bill as a vehicle for DACA protections. In January, Congress arrived at the same crossroads, but 44 Democratic senators opted to withhold their votes from a funding bill that failed to include DACA, shutting down the government. Three days later, Senate Democrats buckled under pressure and joined Republicans in reopening the government. In exchange, they received nothing more than a verbal promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold immigration debates and put DACA to a vote.
Dreamers felt betrayed. “Right now, after that, it’s hard to trust Democrats,” Escarate said. “Both Democrats and Republicans … it’s hard to trust either party at the moment.”
And as the conversation on Capitol Hill turned briefly to gun control following the Valentine’s Day massacre at a school in Parkland, Florida, and then to a banking deregulation bill that could increase the likelihood of a financial crisis, Escarate and his compatriots grew disillusioned, finding much of the Democrats’ rhetoric to be performative. “Even Nancy Pelosi’s eight-hour filibuster that she did in the House, what was it good for?” Escarate said, referring to Pelosi’s speech about immigration on the House floor last month. “It didn’t result in anything positive or anything concrete, like it was just kind of for show.”
He noted that he has felt the most actual solidarity from Hispanic members of Congress. New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, and a handful of others, he said, “have been fighting for us since day one, and those are the ones that you trust a little bit more.”
Please bring the #DreamAct or USA Act without delay.
— Congressional Hispanic Caucus (@HispanicCaucus) March 6, 2018
Gutiérrez — along with Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. — has been arrested while joining Dreamers in civil disobedience on Capitol Hill. Lujan Grisham, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, delivered Ryan a handwritten note on Tuesday asking him to have a one-on-one meeting with her on DACA.
“DACA recipients have shown that they’re willing to jump through any hoop to stay in the only country they know,” Grisham wrote. “Let’s show them that we’re willing to do the same.”
Shortly after Trump’s September decision to cancel DACA, which shields immigrants whose parents brought them to the country illegally as children from deportation, the University of California sued the federal government to stop the president’s order from taking effect. A California district court issued a preliminary injunction, and the Trump administration took the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue before it had been decided by an appellate court. On February 26, the court rejected that request, kicking the issue back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California and leaving the lower court’s decision in place. If the courts hadn’t intervened, an estimated 915 DACA recipients per day were expected to start losing their protections after March 5, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
An estimated 915 DACA recipients per day were expected to start losing their protections after March 5.
Leezia Dhalla, the press manager of FWD.us who is also a Dreamer, called the Supreme Court’s decision a “glimmer of hope.” But ultimately, she said, all the developments coming from the courts speak to an even greater need for Congress to pass a legislative solution, because immigrants “wake up every morning wondering if there will be a court decision or an executive action that day that will somehow change the entire trajectory of our lives.”
Under court order, the Department of Homeland Security must continue renewing existing DACA permits, but the agency is processing renewals in the order they were received, rather than prioritizing applications based on expiration dates. This means many of the Dreamers who have already applied to renew could have their protections expire by the time the DHS acts, sparking fear that the lapse could open them up to possible arrest or firing from a job, due to no longer having a work permit.
DHS spokesperson Tyler Houlton said in a statement on Wednesday that the agency had repeatedly stated that DACA recipients wouldn’t be prioritized or targeted for arrest, unless they had committed a crime.
“With the general exception of certain classes of aliens – including those who otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety – an individual who is a current DACA recipient, or who was a previous DACA recipient but has filed for renewal, will not be targeted for arrest nor will be removed from the United States while the individual has DACA protections or while the DACA renewal request is pending,” Houlton said.
Lawmakers have also urged Dreamers to file renewals, as a failure to do so would leave them susceptible to deportation.
At a Hispanic Caucus news conference on Monday, Grisham urged DACA recipients to renew their protections as soon as possible. But, she cautioned, “these injunctions do not help those Dreamers who would be aging just now into the program, who are still left completely unprotected. They don’t keep DHS, Homeland Security, and ICE from detaining and deporting Dreamers that they come into contact with. They don’t ensure that DACA recipients won’t have a lapse in their protections while they wait for [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] to process their renewals.”
Still, the activists said they are skeptical of the assurances from DHS.
Escarte said he doesn’t trust the agency not to pursue DACA recipients, whose applications for renewal must include identifying information like a home address. “If DHS was able to go after a 10-year-old girl in Texas with cerebral palsy a few months ago, I don’t trust them — at all, unfortunately,” he said, referring to the case of Rosa Maria Hernandez, who was detained by immigration officers after undergoing surgery in Texas, instead of being returned immediately to her parents.
Juan Escalante, communications manager at America’s Voice and a DACA recipient, had a similar response: “Based on what we’ve seen thus far, we have no reason to [trust the DHS]. Period.”
Hundreds of protesters from a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups descended on Washington on Monday, marching to remind lawmakers of the March 5 deadline Trump had given them to legislate DACA. The orange hats and shirts worn by members of the group United We Dream, which have become a familiar sight on the Hill, stuck out as the group rallied in front of the Capitol building. After a series of uplifting speeches, the crowd gathered at the intersection of Independence and New Jersey avenues, where three dozen protesters linked arms and sat in the middle of the street to block traffic.
Sol Leon, a DACA recipient who works as a hospital technician, was at the demonstration with United We Dream. She said she feels angry, disappointed, anxious, and afraid of what the future may bring “not just for me, but for a thousand other people out here,” gesturing to the other protesters in front of the Capitol.
“March 5th has come and Congress has done nothing,” she said. “Every time they keep postponing for one reason or another, and we’re tired of it.”
Capitol police quickly intervened, arresting 68 protesters in the demonstration that blocked traffic, and ultimately, charging 28 of them with resisting arrest. As police officers began handcuffing protesters with cable ties to load them onto a police van, the crowd chanted variations of “We love you, we see you” and “undocumented, unafraid” in English and Spanish. Smaller groups then broke off to head to lawmakers’ offices and knock on their doors. Nineteen others were arrested in the Longworth House Office Building, outside of Paul Ryan’s office.
The 800,000 Dreamers are, of course, just a fraction of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, most of whom don’t qualify even for temporary protections like DACA. In fact, only 1.8 million of the 3.6 million people who were brought to the United States as children were eligible for protections under the program, which give recipients renewable two-year work permits. Out of that group, only 800,000 applied for and received protections. Nonetheless, the Dreamers have gotten outsized attention from politicians and the media — after all, they grew up attending U.S. schools, speak with an American accent, and, under DACA, have been able to attend college and find professional success.
Dreamers say they are tired of the narrative of the “good” immigrant.
They are, in other words, easy to sympathize with. But in interviews, they say they are tired of the narrative of the “good” immigrant — those with spotless criminal records and perfect grades — and they don’t want to be saved at the expense of other immigrants or their mixed-status families.
“Yes, we want a solution for ourselves,” Leon said, “but we also want a solution for our community, for our immigrants. Because we were brought here because of our parents, at least the Dreamers, we were brought here because of our parents and there’s not a solution for them. How are we supposed to be asked, that we can stay here and we have that chance but our family has to go back? And that is losing our support system, losing those that we love and that is just unethical to me.”
For months, lawmakers from both parties downplayed the urgency of DACA by citing Trump’s March 5 deadline, noting that they had time to figure it out. Conversations about immigration were often framed around the politics of it all — what Trump did, and what Pelosi said — drowning out the very real mental toll the uncertainty was taking on families waiting to see if their lives would be turned upside down.
Adolescents whose parents experience high psychological distress because of their undocumented status face heightened risk of academic failure and mental health problems themselves, according to a recent George Washington University study.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, gives one of the first empirical accounts of how recent immigration policy changes have impacted Latino families of varying immigration statuses. The study, which surveyed 213 Latino parents of adolescents in a “large mid-Atlantic city,” found that politics, threats of deportation, and anti-immigrant sentiments “lead to widespread fear and anxiety among Latinos,” including those not directly experiencing deportation.
Latino immigrants experience fear of deportation and oftentimes exploitation by employers, trauma, and racism, all of which are predictors of depression, somatization, or anxiety, the researchers found, and the children of parents who get deported often experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
Carlos Reyes, an 18-year-old Dreamer and member of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said he worries that he and his family will end up “hiding in the shadows, living in fear, constant fear, day after day.”
Trump’s decision to cancel DACA “has changed my life dramatically because I can’t work, I can’t find a job, just because my DACA will end soon,” he said. “I had to drop out of school because I couldn’t finish for the same reason. If I can’t find a job, I can’t go to school. And my family is not able to help me out; we have no financial aid whatsoever or any help for me to succeed.”