Dreamers see their shot at legalization, despite obstacles that remain

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Caitlin Dickson
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Immigration advocates outside the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer
Immigration advocates outside the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Three people were arrested for blocking the entrance to Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office in New York Wednesday, as approximately two dozen immigration advocates gathered in midtown Manhattan in the snow and freezing rain to demand that the Senate’s top Democrat reject any version of a government spending bill that doesn’t have the DREAM Act attached.

The small demonstration was one of several aimed at both Republican and Democratic members of Congress around the country this week, part of a push to tie key immigration legislation to a government spending bill ahead of a looming government shutdown on Friday.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, immigration activists occupied the offices of several Republican Senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Tennesse’s Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, as well as Thom Tillis, the North Carolina freshman who has actively been working on a bipartisan immigration deal. Those sit-ins also prompted a number of arrests, and Capitol police were seen escorting demonstrators away from the offices of Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. John Cornyn, among others, while others attempted, unsuccessfully, to get a word with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The demonstrations—and arrests—continued across the country Wednesday, from D.C. to Detroit, with young immigrants and their supporters calling for the same thing.

“We are asking Congress to make sure the DREAM Act is included in the spending bill and to vote no on a spending bill that doesn’t include the DREAM Act,” explained Tereza Lee, a longtime immigrant activist who organized the protest at Schumer’s New York office along with representatives of about 14 different local and national organizations. She said that Schumer’s commitment to creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth brought into the country by their parents was particularly important, as the party leader.

Immigration activists protest at Sen. Dean Heller's office
Demonstrators protest at Sen. Dean Heller’s office in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), programs. ( Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Armed with a bullhorn and a white plastic garbage bag filled with homemade posters, Lee was the first to arrive outside Schumer’s New York office Wednesday. As police officers lined the sidewalk with barricades, she reflected on how immigration advocacy has evolved since she first got involved in the cause.

“I’ve been fighting for this for 16 years,” said Lee, whose own experience of growing up undocumented in Chicago inspired the original version of the Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors Act introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2001.

Since then, the bill, which stands to provide a nearly 2 million undocumented young people [the estimated number of individuals potentially eligible for DACA, as of 2016] with the opportunity to gain legal status, has undergone multiple revisions and reintroductions to Congress, but has never passed. One major sticking point for immigration hardliners has been concerns over what some describe as “amnesty” for the relatives of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries, leading some Republicans to propose stricter versions of the legislation that further limit Dreamers’ abilities to sponsor family members seeking legal status.

Still, despite this long history of roadblocks and a president whose rhetoric is viewed by many as hostile by immigration activists, Lee is optimistic.

“I see something going on right now,” she said. “Back in 2001, there were no DREAM Teams,” she said, referring to various local and campus-based advocacy groups composed undocumented youth and their allies. Lee said that the first time she started seeing undocumented youth organizing was around 2007, when the DREAM Act was reintroduced as a kind of military recruitment tool.

“Since then, there has been a movement rising to protect Dreamers and undocumented immigrants and that movement has been growing and growing,” she said, adding that local resistance groups have continued to emerge around the country under President Trump, whose anti-immigration actions include putting an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created during the Obama administration in 2012. Back in September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Trump’s plan to terminate the program, giving Congress until March to find a permanent solution for the nearly 800,000 undocumented young people who currently benefit from the program.

Police arrest a demonstrator outside the Manhattan office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)
Police arrest a demonstrator outside the Manhattan office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

“It’s the undocumented youth that led this movement,” she said. “So that brings me a lot of hope, and people need to continue to stand up even though we are tired.”

Hector Jairo Martinez, a 26-year-old DACA recipient who spoke alongside Lee at Wednesday’s demonstration in New York, is a perfect example of the undocumented youth who’ve dedicated themselves to this very personal cause — even if it means putting themselves at risk.

A native of Colombia who grew up in New Jersey and now studies psychology at the City College of New York, Martinez was one of seven DACA recipients and one ally arrested during a protest for the DREAM Act at the Washington, D.C., offices of Schumer and Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo last month. Martinez was released after five days in jail, during which he and the other activists went on a hunger strike.

After delivering an impassioned speech to the small crowd outside Schumer’s office Wednesday, Martinez spoke to Yahoo News about why he’s willing to risk arrest and, potentially, deportation.

“Let’s just say this, it’s not easy on any family … being six days in jail with them not knowing very much about what is happening, is very difficult,” he said, recalling the sight of his sister at the hearing in D.C. “I could see her crying and that was what highlighted the sacrifice that we made.”

“In a moment where things can seem very bleak, when you have other people standing up, when you have other people fighting, it creates a different narrative and it inspires people to stand up,” Martinez continued, snow collecting on the lenses of his cobalt blue-rimmed glasses. “I feel like, as a person, I have the opportunity to stand up for [the immigrant community], and by putting my body on the line, I make that very clear.”

It’s not just DACA recipients and other young immigrants who’ve felt compelled to call for a clean DREAM Act. Pam Campos, who served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, was one of a handful of representatives from Common Defense, a national grassroots organization of veterans and military family members, who showed up Wednesday to demonstrate outside Schumer’s office.

Though Common Defense has taken a stand against various aspects of what they call Trump’s “dangerous agenda,” including the ban on transgender military service members and various iterations of the [Muslim] travel ban, the immigration issue hits particularly close to home for Campos.

Tereza Lee, left, leads a group of immigration activists outside the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)
Tereza Lee, left, leads a group of immigration activists outside the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

“I’m the daughter of an immigrant,” she said. “I have folks in my life who are undocumented.”

Though her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras, is now a naturalized citizen, Campos said she also knows plenty of undocumented veterans, some of whom have enrolled in DACA themselves, who are now at risk of deportation.

“It’s a very scary moment,” she said. “None of us are really safe until all of us are safe.”

Trump’s potential support for a DREAM Act has vacillated greatly over the past couple of weeks, with the president reportedly shifting from enthusiastic support to enraged disavowal within a matter of hours last week.

However, for Lee and all the others advocating for a clean DREAM Act, any sort of compromise that offers a pathway to citizenship in exchange for more funding for things like a border wall and enhanced immigration enforcement is a non-starter.

“Being an immigrant and activist, I want to advocate for the best and the most just legislation,” Lee said. “That is the clean DREAM Act, which doesn’t throw our parents and our families under the bus.”

After failing to get anyone from Schumer’s office to come down and address the small crowd, three of the activists placed themselves in front of the doors to the office building and proceeded to block the entrance until, after being warned by one NYPD officer with a bullhorn, they were handcuffed with zip ties and arrested.

Hours later, Schumer tweeted in support of the bipartisan deal presented last week by Sen. Durbin and Sen. Graham, urging Trump to say yes to the deal “that would protect Dreamers AND fund the president’s full budget request on the border.”

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