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‘No allies left’: Dreamers, DACA recipients are left out amid rightward shift on immigration

DACA recipients once had political leverage and hopes for legalizing their status, but they were a glaring omission in the failed border deal.
People rally in front of the US Supreme Court on Nov. 12, 2019.
A rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 12, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images file

Young undocumented immigrants known as "Dreamers" once had the political leverage to force a vote on a bill that would help them earn citizenship. But in the now-defunct Senate bipartisan immigration proposal, Dreamers were ignored altogether, a casualty of the rightward shift on immigration.

This is true despite poll after poll over a number of years showing support for these immigrants who've lived most of their lives in the U.S., having arrived as young children with parents and family who either remained here after their visas expired or entered the U.S. without authorization.

While some lawmakers say recent years' arrivals mean "we don't know who is coming in," they once again chose to leave in the shadows hundreds of thousands of Dreamers and other people who have lived and worked in the U.S. most of their lives without legal status.

"Dreamers" is a term based on legislation introduced in 2001 to provide a path to citizenship for this category of young immigrants. It includes the more than 500,000 who have protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which allows eligible young adults to work and study in the U.S. It's been compared to the GI Bill in its ability to launch some young adults into the middle class, thus benefiting their communities, too.

Not all Dreamers are eligible or can afford to enroll or are accepted into DACA, an Obama-era program, which is also at risk: Then-President Donald Trump tried to stop it, and it has been blocked from accepting new applications by a Republican-led court challenge. An estimated 1.1 million eligible Dreamers don't have DACA.

In the early 2000s, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, drew blowback from immigration advocates when he called on them to break apart a comprehensive immigration bill to address Dreamers as a stand-alone issue. It didn't happen, and the comprehensive effort failed.

"Relief for DACA recipients and other Dreamers should have been enacted as a stand-alone bill a long time ago and it should be enacted as stand-alone today, mainly because of the urgency of the precarious situation they are in today," Saenz told NBC News.

Saenz noted that along with strong support for Dreamers, many of the immigrants are playing important roles in the workforce — including in essential jobs like health care roles during the height of the Covid pandemic.

“So there is not a reason, not a political reason, not a policy reason, why relief for the Dreamers should not be enacted down the road,” he said.

The omission of Dreamers is a stark difference from the previous decade, when Congress could not ignore them. They formed a powerful youth-led lobby, staging nonviolent sit-ins in congressional offices, led rallies and marches,?and worked on campaigns.

But Congress has rebuffed them for so long and missed so many opportunities to reconcile their status in the U.S. that many of the first Dreamers to press for legalization are well into adulthood; some who were eligible to change their status have become citizens, professionals and members of the military, while others are still struggling as longtime residents without legal status.

Nonetheless, there’s still support for Dreamers, as demonstrated by the conservative National Association of Evangelicals: Though it praised the bipartisan Senate proposal, the group noted a permanent solution for Dreamers was one of the bill’s “missing pieces.”

The looming presidential election and the record numbers of immigrants arriving at ports of entry and between them complicate that possibility.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who introduced a Dreamers bill in 2017, told Reuters that helping Dreamers or other people in the U.S. without legal status is "toxic" and "tabled for years now" because of the current situation at the southern border.

'No real allies left'

Leonardo Rodriguez, a 22-year-old in his final semester at the University of California, Berkeley, is now the same age his mother was when she crossed the southern border with him from Mexico to join his father, who was already in the U.S. Rodriguez was 5. He has been protected from deportation and permitted to work through DACA, which he applied for and received as soon as he was eligible.

He and other undocumented young people often discuss how their life was easier when they first came to the U.S., even though they were in a completely culturally different place and had to learn a new language.

“When you were younger, we aren’t asked to prove our citizenship and we would get student of the month or honor roll or to go on our filed trips,” Rodriguez said.

It was when he began to do better in elementary school that his parents sat him down and had a frank talk with him about his status in the U.S. Despite his academic success, he would hit a wall one day, they told him. They promised to help him overcome those barriers, “but at the end of the day, they would not be able to completely remove that,” he said.

Leonardo Rodriguez, 22, student at UC Berkeley.
Leonardo Rodriguez, 22, a student at UC Berkeley.Courtesy Leonardo Rodriguez

The years of hoping Congress would act and then being disappointed took a toll in high school, when Rodriguez began to wonder, "What am I going to try for?" But community college saved him, and he decided that if he couldn’t change his government, he would become active in his community, helping in groups aiding people during the pandemic.

Rodriguez also became part of his community college board and a board trustee and was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve on the California Student Aid Commission. His GPA at Berkeley is 3.1.

“For me it’s kind of disheartening to see that there’s no real allies left for the undocumented,” Rodriguez said, reflecting on the recent events in Congress around the immigration bill. “We’ve had to resort to putting that task back on undocumented people again, kind of like, how can you help yourself? How can you survive on your own, you know? How can you advocate for you?”

Even in his home state, the University of California system chose to put off a vote on a proposal to allow students without legal immigration status to hold jobs on its campuses. UC President Michael Drake said the student work plan could put immigrant students at risk of criminal prosecution and deportation for working without legal status, The Associated Press reported.

The bipartisan immigration proposal, which Republicans forced onto a funding bill for aid to Ukraine and Israel, died on a procedural vote Wednesday, killing the measure President Joe Biden had urged Congress to pass. But Trump had told party members to sink the bill, leaving it with few prospects.

Bruna Sollod, senior communications and political director with United We Dream, a network of groups advocating for Dreamers, said the group didn’t want to be part of the bill that she and other advocates consider to be wholly bad policy and would have remained so even if protections for Dreamers had been added.

“The people who live here and who are working for their families and are part of communities, they’re trying to do the best they can with that, and the government is failing these people and failing the communities that we’re a part of,” Sollod said.

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