Here we go again. That’s the reaction of immigrant advocates about a couple of pieces of legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate that would create a pathway to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries nationwide of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
One bill focused entirely on DACA recipients – those who were brought to the United States as minors and are known informally as DREAMers – is actually bipartisan, introduced by senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“These young people have lived in America since they were children, built their lives here, and are American in every way except for their immigration status. However, under current law there is often no chance for them to ever become citizens and fulfill their potential,” says a joint statement by the senators.
Under the Obama-era DACA program established in 2012, eligible recipients have been able to study and work (including joining the military) legally as long as they renew their permit. Obama administration officials said at the time that it was best they could do while waiting for Congress to act. And the wait has been a long one.
“I first introduced the Dream Act more than 20 years ago, and I’ll continue fighting until it becomes the law of the land. This is a matter of simple American fairness and justice,” added Durbin in the statement.
As Durbin alluded to, this is nothing new. The Dream Act of 2023 is just the latest iteration and has been introduced by both senators in the last three sessions of Congress, but similar versions have been introduced – and at one point even passed the U.S. House of Representatives only to never see the light of day in the upper chamber. And while some legislators might say this time’s a charm, others aren’t so convinced, in part because even supporters of granting permanent legal status to DREAMers and others seeking a path to U.S. citizenship complain that legislators constantly use DREAMers in particular as a pawn for greater security measures along the U.S.-Mexico border.
They point to comments made by presumptive DREAMer supporter Sen. Graham in the same joint statement announcing the newest bill:
“While I continue to support relief for Dreamers, I hope my Democratic colleagues understand we must repair a broken border and address a tsunami of illegal immigration before that is remotely possible,” said Graham. “The Dreamers represent a class of illegal immigrants that have much public support because they were minors brought here by their parents and America has become their home. To provide relief to this population, we must first convince Americans that the unending wave of illegal immigration will stop.”
“I want to be hopeful, but I just don’t think it’s going anywhere because we’ve been here before and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” says Yesenia Contreras, from Carliner & Remes, a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in immigration law and has a large number of DACA clients. “And given the current political climate, I’m just not confident. I tell our clients don’t give up, have hope, but it is hard.” Contreras adds that, on the other hand, many DACA recipients have “moved on” and have used other means.
“At this point, many are old enough to get married (to U.S. citizens), even get sponsored (for a “green card”) by their employers, and that’s what they’re doing. They’ve been waiting a long time.”
Contreras’ law firm is currently sponsoring one such DACA recipient. Twenty-four-year-old Glendy Hernández came with her family to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was four years old and grew up in the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia, graduating from college in 2020 and aspires to be an attorney.
“You want to be hopeful, but it’s (DACA legislation) been for many years. We get excited and then it doesn’t pass and we all kind of just wait, and that’s where we lose hope and it’s back to the same thing.” Hernández says she hopes to have her employer-sponsored “green card” by next summer – ironically around the same time her DACA permit would be up for renewal — but wonders about other DACA recipients who are at the mercy of congressional inaction, including her younger brother, who was just a few months old when he was brought to the states. “He can’t imagine not living anywhere else, not being from here. He worries about it (having to leave). He is from here.”
Durbin and his Democratic colleague Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada last week introduced legislation that they say will take care of a little-known aspect of what TPS and DREAMers face: their current inability to work as staffers in Congress or as employees of any federal agency whether in the nation’s capital or elsewhere, unless they are unpaid interns.
“Our government should be as diverse as the people we represent, and that includes the Dreamers and TPS holders who are part of our communities and who are working legally in Nevada and across the country,” Cortez Masto said when introducing the American Dream Employment Act.
“My legislation will give them a voice in our government by allowing them to directly shape the laws that impact them and their families,” she said.
Of another other state in the country, California has the largest number of DACA and TPS recipients and both pieces of legislation have overwhelming support from the California congressional delegation, but again, little chance of passage given the current political climate of what has been called a dysfunctional House under the influence of the far right, and a Senate that cannot move with the lower chamber.
“It really is too bad,” says Contreras. “But that’s the reality now.”