Without a 'Clean' Dream Act, What Are Dreamers' Options?

Reyna Montoya protests the end of DACA in front of a local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building on Thursday, August 31.
Reyna Montoya protests the end of DACA in front of a local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building on Thursday, August 31. Courtesy of Diego Lozano with Aliento
Reyna Montoya says it’s about time to start compromising.

The Phoenix-based Dreamer says the fate of 800,000 young adult unauthorized immigrants who were brought into the United States as children may depend on Congressional Democrat and Republican lawmakers coming together and finding some middle ground.

Sixty-seven days ago, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would be rescinded, Montoya and Dreamers like her took a more aggressive tone.

They were ready to fight for a more permanent solution. They wanted a clean DREAM Act — known formally as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The bill's aim is to give undocumented young adults a path to citizenship. A version of the legislation was first introduced in 2001 but has been facing Congressional hurdles ever since.

Dreamers made signs, shouted into megaphones, and marched in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices touting this message. With at least five Dreamer-related bills introduced in Congress, the clean Dream Act was their first choice — it was their champion. It was and is their national stance. Rallies were held in D.C. and across the nation Thursday emphasizing that approach.

But Montoya realizes that fight may not be a realistic one.

“We understand that right now [a clean Dream Act] has already become very politicized,” Montoya said. “We don’t care what Congress wants to call it, we just care that it's good policy that is gonna impact our community in a positive way.”

Any immigration-related legislation is tough for Congress to pass because in order to garner bipartisan votes for a bill, side deals are often tacked on to legislation, Mesa lawyer Phil Ortega says. In this case, a main point of Congressional infighting has been Republicans leveraging DACA protections to get the go-ahead from Democrats for the border wall.

"I think some [lawmakers] see this as an opportunity to change other laws while changing DACA," Ortega says. "DACA is the nice law and they want to give children of immigrants relief, but they see it as an opportunity to include other immigration changes in the same bill."

Conservatives are also hesitant to allow Dreamers to sponsor other family members looking for amnesty in the U.S., fearing "chain immigration" will increase, Ortega says.

Aside from the Dream Act, four other bills have been proposed:

• The SUCCEED Act, a GOP Senate bill that would create a pathway to lawfulness for Dreamers, but wouldn't allow them to sponsor other family members in the country.
• The Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, which would be similar to the Dream Act, but cover fewer people.
• The American Hope Act, which differs from other bills because it doesn't have military or education requirements and offers a quicker citizenship pathway.
• The BRIDGE Act, which is the most temporary option, providing three years of protection for individuals eligible for DACA, which means Congress would have to revisit the issue down the road.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reiterated last week that if it comes down to it, Democrats will push to include protections for DACA recipients in the must-pass government spending deal in hopes that President Trump wouldn't veto it and cause a government shutdown.

Republicans and Trump oppose this idea.

"It is important we’re not catering to the very far right or the far left, and we know that if we want to actually get a solution it’s going to be somewhere in the middle," Montoya said. "I am compromising because I’m open to actually hear what solutions they have to propose. I want to know what it is. I’m not going to be able to just say, 'Oh yeah I’ll take anything.'

"I think what we’re interested in knowing is: What is the policy, what is the actual bill, what is the legislation, that they think is going to be viable and is going to move forward and be signed by President Trump?"

Ortega says Dreamers like Montoya are taking the most pragmatic approach to the matter.

"I just don't think the current administration will pass a bill that just allows people to adjust status to a legal permanent resident while at the same time maintaining our current framework," Ortega said. "A bill that fits somewhere in the middle is probably what will happen. Frankly, that’s just the way the political process works."

Long story short, it's complicated.

Some Democrats have said they'll let the government shut down before leaving DACA recipients in the lurch and some House Republicans said last week they’re “ready to work” on passing protections for Dreamers, but words mean nothing until a bill gets signed. Congress has been doing “work” on a Dream Act for almost 20 years now.

Until legislation passes, the only thing Dreamers know is that DACA’s phase-out will culminate next spring.

After March 6, 2018, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that an average of 915 young unauthorized immigrants per day will lose their work authorization and protection from deportation through March 5, 2020.

The loss could have a host of repercussions on both the Dreamers and the economies they’re a part of, Ortega says.

“This issue doesn’t end with the end of DACA,” Ortega said. “We’ve put these 800,000 people in flux.”

It’s unlikely all of the Dreamers would be deported, which means they’ll be stuck in undocumented limbo.

“You’re going to take that DACA security blanket, take it away from them, make them lose their jobs,” Ortega said. “Now they have to leave the country or go into hiding or just continue to exist like nothing’s wrong. Of course there’s going to be some problems.”

Most Dreamers won’t just leave the country — they grew up here. It’s the only home many of them remember. Montoya, now 26, came to America when she was 13.

Her DACA permit expires next October, but she says she can’t imagine going back to Mexico if Congress hasn’t come up with a solution for her by then.

“I don’t see myself going back there, to a place that we were running away from violence,” Montoya said. “I think that’s something that is just a very scary thought for me.”

Employment-wise, Montoya is one of the lucky ones — she founded the Arizona immigrant rights group Aliento. Because she runs the group and doesn’t report to an employer, she could continue that work there even without DACA protections.

But most Dreamers are in a much rockier boat. According to Migration Policy institute estimates, about 55 percent of current DACA recipients are employed — accounting for 0.25 percent of all U.S. workers.

If these people don’t choose to leave the country, Ortega says they may become more susceptible to different kinds of fraud.

"This immigrant community is very susceptible," Ortega said.  "They don’t have very much hope. There’s no chance of them getting any kind of lawful status, work authorization, so they’re going to be very susceptible to, you know, forged documents. Susceptible to people who try to sell them on this idea that you can change your status through all these different ways ... They’ll cling to anything that seems like it is a glimmer of hope." 

For example, notarios, or notary publics who pose as attorneys and claim to be able to help with immigration issues, may see Dreamers as a new host of people to take advantage of.

“Some people are going to be susceptible, be naïve, and make bad decisions probably to get some sort of work authorization or some sort of lawful status,” Ortega said. “I don’t know if green card fraud will increase or if work authorization fraud will increase, but I just think that based on what’s occurred, you’ve now created a situation where, shit, that may be what someone has to do.”

Although Republicans like Sessions have called DACA itself unlawful, more laws could be broken because DACA recipients will have their protections ripped away from them.

Montoya remembers what it was like to be undocumented before DACA. She never had the opportunity to apply for jobs. She couldn’t drive legally. The only reason she was able to attend Arizona State University was because she got in on a private scholarship.

“No matter how much hard I tried in high school, it was never good enough for me to be able to be fully integrated into a place that I grew up in — that I love,” Montoya said. “No matter how hard you work, you’re limited because of not having a social security number.”

This is a life Montoya isn’t itching to get back to. DACA gave Dreamers a chance to climb out of these shadows, and going back into the darkness isn’t something they’re interested in.

That’s why more and more Dreamers are accepting that compromise may be imminent.

“I believe that the far left and the far right are not going to be satisfied, but I think, at the end of the day, for me, this is not about politics — this is about my life," Montoya said. "This is about the life of thousands and thousands of Dreamers across the nation."

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Molly Longman