ASU senior Belén Sisa was one of 14 people arrested on November 9 during a Clean Dream Act protest in Washington, D.C.
ASU senior Belén Sisa was one of 14 people arrested on November 9 during a Clean Dream Act protest in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of Belén Sisa

Dreamers Are Taking Bigger Risks to Get the Attention of Congress

The tug of war between Republicans and Democrats over the Clean Dream Act continues as nearly 28,000 Arizona Dreamers shout from the sidelines.

As the December 8 deadline nears, their voices are getting louder, their protests are getting larger and their actions may be getting riskier.

Advocates and Dreamers are asking Congress to pass a bipartisan Dream Act that would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country before they were 18 and have lived in the U.S. for four years to apply for permanent legal status.

The catch is, Democrats and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allies insist that this act cannot be muddled with spending for increased border control or funding to build Trump's infamous wall.

Conservatives have warned the Republican leaders to not lump immigration issues into the tax reform bill that's currently being discussed. But as the clock ticks down, Democrats have threatened a government shutdown if the DACA program isn't addressed before Congress takes recess in December.

For Arizona State University senior and DACA recipient Belén Sisa, the movement has come to a boiling point.

"I feel like they don’t feel the urgency that we feel because they’re not in the position we’re in," she said.

On November 9, Sisa took on the role of a political martyr. She volunteered to be one of 14 protesters arrested for obstruction and crowding while sitting on the floor of the Hart Senate building in Washington, D.C.

As the zip ties closed in around her wrists, she became a symbol larger than herself.

She thought of the families of DACA recipients who have been left waiting on pins and needles since President Donald Trump ended the program in September.

She thought of the college students who, like her, were excited to enter the workforce even though their permits may expire before they can launch their careers.

She thought of all the undocumented immigrants who were still too scared to be vocal or attend protests.

“I felt like my heart just led me to say you need to do this," Sisa said. "You need to put everything on the line for something bigger than yourself.”

This is a feeling Aliento founder Reyna Montoya knows well.

Montoya has been a leader in the undocumented community since 2013, when she organized a movement to help stop a bus full of undocumented immigrants being deported from Phoenix. Her leadership expanded as she founded the group Aliento, which aims to humanize undocumented immigrants.

Montoya's activism, which recently landed her in Forbes's 30 Under 30 club, has moved from dramatic to diplomatic.

Over the holiday weekend, Montoya and fellow Dreamer Antonio Valdovinos were on a nonstop, cross-country road trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"I think it’s important that people feel empowered to take those risks," Montoya said. "At the same time it's not only about getting the attention, it's about getting the votes.”

But attention is exactly what the nearly 30 Arizona Dreamers got when they traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Their November 9 action was one of the largest peaceful protests to happen in the Hart Senate building, where senators have their offices. It also prompted walkouts across the nation from New York City to San Diego.

Members of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) and Arizona State University's Undocumented Students for Education Equity (USEE) chanted through the halls in the Senate building before dropping banners calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to move forward on the Clean Dream Act.

While the 1,300 participants marched past senators' offices and around the Capitol, Sisa and the other arrested protesters sat in a holding cell for nearly three hours.

Those arrested were released after paying a fine and will not have a criminal charge on their record. The organization United We Dream, which orchestrated the action and trained the volunteers on how to respond to police, paid the $50 to $60 fines.

United We Dream Field Director Eli Cuna said the organization gave officers a heads-up that a massive action was happening and that participants in white shirts were willing to be arrested for the cause.

Cuna said that members of the organization were willing to put it all on the line and suggested being arrested to heightened the importance of the Clean Dream Act.

“It’s not just about a piece of legislation," Cuna said. "We have been fighting for over a decade simply for the families and their existence in this country.”

Cuna said none of the 14 undocumented members who were arrested were charged or fingerprinted — information that could be used by immigration officers to later deport them. This was part of the cooperation from law enforcement that Cuna and United We Dream organizers set up prior to the action.

The night before, 350 members went through role-playing scenarios to train how to react without escalating the situation. If they reacted with violence, they could have potentially jeopardized their DACA status.

The DACA program requires that recipients have a clean background, which means no federal felonies, no "significant" misdemeanors which include violent crimes, burglaries, and DUIs, and no more than two "non-significant" misdemeanors.

“It felt like a duty to me — to risk my livelihood, to risk my ability to stay in this country," Sisa said. "I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I felt like I needed to use my voice to defend undocumented youth.”

Immigration lawyer Phil Ortega said that as it stands now, there aren't protest-related charges, like civil disobedience, that would prompt immediate deportation. However, with an administration that is constantly in flux and especially hard on immigration, Ortega warns that this could be subject to change.

Ortega said that any risk is too great and he would not advise a client to put themselves in harm's way, much less volunteer to be arrested. He worries that by fighting to stay in this country, Dreamers may risk being kicked out of it.

“I just wish those individuals would fight the long fight instead of these emotional ones, but I do get it," he said.

Immigration lawyer Ray Ybarra Maldonado said it's more about playing it smart than playing it safe.

“There’s a lot of questions to be asked, but it is a powerful message of social justice," he said.

Ybarra Maldonado said he has had clients who were charged with civil disobedience during political protests but were still able to renew their DACA status. However, he noted that DACA is a discretionary program and status could be revoked at any time.

He suggests those who want to protest consult an immigration and criminal lawyer beforehand and to ask if immigration officers will be present at the scene of the protest.

"I definitely think it’s worth the calculated risk," Ybarra Maldonado said. "What’s happening right now, not just to young people but to families, is a human-rights tragedy.”

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