For Dreamers and the undocumented youth movement, 2017 ended as it began: badly.
As recently as this month, Democratic leaders promised activists that they would push Congress to a solution on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals before the end of the year. President Trump had, in September, canceled the Obama administration program, which gave work permits and protection from deportation to close to a million undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, and Dreamers were hopeful that Democrats would make it a priority to come up with a replacement. Last week, Democrats reneged on their promise, declining to fight for a DACA replacement in a year-end spending bill to avert a government shutdown — the only real opportunity they had to force the Republicans’ hand on the matter.
“Nancy Pelosi looked me in the face and said, ‘We are going to get this done by the end of the year,’” said Adrian Reyna, an advocate with United We Dream, the most prominent advocacy group for Dreamers in the country. “We can’t be living our lives on false promises. We don’t have the luxury to do that.”
That leaves the Dreamers, as recipients of DACA protection are known, facing a bleak and uncertain 2018, newly aware that the Democratic Party is willing to go only so far in its fight for them. Some moderate Republicans have expressed a desire to legalize the Dreamers, too, but revisiting DACA is far from a priority for the GOP at large, and any bipartisan solution will involve exacting negotiations over ramped-up immigration enforcement. For now, the Democratic leadership is telling advocates that all hope is not lost: Technically, Congress has until March 5 to act.
“They argue that we’re still very much alive,” said Frank Sharry, founder and director of America’s Voice, a longtime lobbying group for immigration reform in Washington. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, the leading Democrats in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, DACA recipients are losing their status, according to some estimates, by the hundreds every day; those who do can no longer legally work in the U.S. and are at constant risk of deportation.
The Dreamers still have popular opinion on their side: Just 15 percent of voters think they should be deported, and 58 percent think they should not only be allowed to stay but also should be given a path to citizenship. But the math is different for Trump voters, a majority of whom, according to a separate poll, supported the president’s decision to end DACA.
Dreamers knew that DACA was in serious trouble from the very early days of Trump’s presidency. Trump made killing the program, which he dubbed Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty,” a centerpiece promise of his campaign.
Immigrant rights activists had long decried DACA’s serious limitations: It was a narrow, stopgap solution done without legislative approval, and it was therefore inherently precarious, they said. That fragility became evident the moment Trump took office. The first detention of a DACA recipient under Trump came on Feb. 10 with the arrest of 23-year-old Daniel Ramirez Medina in Seattle. To justify its attempt to deport him, the administration argued that it could unilaterally revoke any individual’s DACA status at any time and without court review.
Even many beneficiaries of DACA criticized the program for arbitrarily excluding many immigrants. One of the lawyers who represented Ramirez Medina after his arrest was Luis Cortes Romero, a DACA recipient himself. “A lot of people were left behind because they came to the U.S. one day late,” he said. “I really discovered that once I started working at a detention center. There were people there who were my age, and I knew that at the end of the day, I was going to walk out, and they weren’t. It’s almost like a sense of survivor’s guilt.”
Still, when Trump’s intentions to end the program became clear, Dreamers scrambled to its defense. As Cortes put it: “There’s a lot about DACA that’s very imperfect, but it’s better than nothing.” Within minutes of the announcement of the end of the program, dozens of activists staged a sit-in at Trump Tower in New York, where several Dreamers were arrested.
Given Dreamers’ popularity with the general public, Trump took political cover by casting his decision to end DACA as one based entirely on the legality of the program, calling it an unconstitutional overreach of executive power. Then he punted to Congress the moral question of what to do with the Dreamers themselves: Should lawmakers preserve the rights DACA had afforded them or let them slip once again into undocumented status, living and working illegally in the U.S.? As the year drew to a close, Trump’s challenge to Congress had the effect of backing Democrats into a corner — the Dreamers may be popular with voters, but shutting down the government to protect them is not.
The end of DACA showed how much the undocumented youth movement has evolved in the decade or so since its inception. Early waves of activism for the DREAM Act relied heavily on the narrative of Dreamers as blameless overachievers deserving of protection — high school valedictorians who “did nothing wrong." But, over the years, activists came to reject this frame, because it excluded and cast as undeserving any undocumented immigrants who did not fit that mold — most notably, the Dreamers’ own parents.
Since September, most undocumented youth organizations have called for what’s come to be known as a “clean DREAM Act,” meaning a replacement for DACA that stands alone — rather than one that comes in exchange for more border security and expanded immigration enforcement, which is what Trump and congressional Republicans have said they want. And they’ve ratcheted up the pressure on Democrats to adopt the same line: In September, a group of activists mercilessly heckled Nancy Pelosi for supposedly making a deal with Trump exchanging a DACA replacement for more border security, shouting “We are not a bargaining chip” and “All of us or none of us.”
The argument in favor of a clean bill was clearest for Dreamers living along the U.S.-Mexico border, where 30 years and billions of dollars’ worth of border security have created a regime that immigrant communities frequently describe as oppressive. Dulce Garcia, a DACA recipient from San Diego, said she rejected, in principle, any measure to protect her that would come in exchange for even slightly higher chances that her family members would be caught in the enforcement dragnet. “Having a work permit in exchange for my parents?” Garcia said. “That’s not even a deal. Why would I ever agree to something like that?”
A clean DREAM Act was always a long shot -- more a pressure tactic than a realistic demand -- but, in the weeks after Trump cancelled DACA, powerful Democrats played along. Now that Democrats have backed away from a real fight, the expectations have shifted.
“It’s now understood that the only way that the DREAM Act, or something close to it, is going to pass is if it’s coupled with some sort of border security measure,” said Sharry, of America’s Voice. This is what’s likely to result from negotiations that Senator Dick Durbin, who introduced the original DREAM Act back in 2001, is currently holding in the Senate. “The question is whether the Republicans are going to demand so much more that it blows up the possibility of relief for Dreamers,” Sharry added.
That remains a distinct possibility, given what the GOP has so far treated as its baseline: The one serious proposal Republicans have put forward, the Secure Act, traded a weak DACA replacement (with no path to citizenship) for heavy investment in border security. It also called for a law that punishes sanctuary cities (which help protect immigrants from deportation), measures to allow ICE to detain immigrants indefinitely, and steep reductions to legal immigration. United We Dream called the bill a “white supremacist Trojan horse.”
The two likeliest scenarios, then, are a DACA replacement with major enforcement provisions, or no DACA replacement at all. Either option would sow discord among immigration advocates and deepen an already existing disillusionment with the Democratic party within the movement. It’s the Democrats, after all, who failed to pass both comprehensive immigration reform and a much more limited, broadly popular DREAM Act under much friendlier political climates. That disillusionment could accelerate a general shift away from electoral politics and toward ground-level movement building, civil disobedience, and other tactics meant to sway the public’s perceptions of undocumented immigrants rather than achieve concrete policy goals — what activists call the “outside game.”
To some extent, this shift has already begun. “We don’t dance with political parties,” said Maria Fernanda Cabello, a member of Movimiento Cosecha, a relatively new organization that was responsible for, among other recent direct actions, the sit-in at Trump Tower after the DACA repeal. Cosecha, which remains small but is drawing more and more attention from the immigrant rights community and the progressive left, includes many Dreamers disillusioned with the lack of political progress their movement achieved even under ostensibly friendly, Democratic administrations. “You’ll never see a press conference with a Cosecha member and an elected official, even if we’re on the same side,” Cabello said. “And that’s specifically because of the history of the immigrant rights movement — we’ve consistently confused access to the Democratic Party as a form of power.”
And even those organizations that are still working with politicians say their patience is running thin. “We’re going to have to start talking about accountability for the Democrats,” said Reyna, of United We Dream. “If we end up in the same place, we’re committed to ensuring that there’s not a day they can go up on a stage and talk about immigrant rights without looking like hypocrites, like people who threw us under the bus. And they will feel that in 2018.”
Cover image by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images