As the lame duck session of Congress continues, educational organizations are lobbying for legislation to protect undocumented Americans who arrived in the country at young ages, known as Dreamers.
Last week, a phalanx of nearly 70 higher ed groups, including the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education, sent a letter to Congressional leaders calling for a bipartisan agreement including a path to citizenship. This week, advocacy organizations are embarking on a week of action that includes a Nov. 29 social media storm, a Dec. 1 call-in day to representatives, and meetings among Dreamers, university leaders, and senators.
“There is a real and narrow window to achieve some sort of compromise,” said Dr. Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an organization of college and university leaders supporting undocumented students. The Presidents’ Alliance, also involved in the letter and the week of action campaigns, estimates that over 427,000 or around 2% of all college students are undocumented.
House Democratic leaders told their caucus that a bill to protect Dreamers would be a priority at a closed-door meeting last week. The framework is rumored to be a version of the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide certain undocumented individuals with a path to citizenship, versions of which have been proposed for over 20 years. It is not yet clear exactly what segments of Dreamers might be covered. The bill could cover: all Dreamers who arrived before a certain date and meet certain conditions; just participants in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that protected certain Dreamers who had arrived prior to June 2007 created by former President Barack Obama; or DACA recipients and those who might have qualified if not for the legal challenges against the program.
Any agreement on Dreamers likely would be attached to must-pass legislation such as the omnibus appropriations bill or the National Defense Authorization Act. In order to attract republican votes — ten are needed in the Senate to break a potential filibuster — democrats may have to include conservative priorities such as increased money for border security or tightened asylum rules. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), said four or five republicans have indicated they would support a potential deal.
Feldblum believes that the conditions are right for a compromise. She said she thinks that democrats will be motivated because this is likely their last chance to protect Dreamers for at least two years. Republicans will control the House of Representatives come January, and prospective speaker Kevin McCarthy of California has already indicated his hostility to “amnesty.”
Democrats may also be motivated by recent challenges to DACA. A ruling this fall from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that DACA is illegal, but the court decided to stay the ruling in acknowledgment of the program’s significance over the past decade. Another lower court case will consider the legality of a Biden administration rule to protect DACA and might reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2023-24 term.
Michael Kagan, the Joyce Mack Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, was less optimistic.
“There's every good reason for Congress to act. It would seem to be popular, and yet the safe bet is that Congress will not act,” he said.
Kagan was skeptical that 10 republicans would be willing to make a deal and said he thought the cost could be too high for some immigration advocates.
“There are some things that republicans might demand that might be difficult, especially cutbacks on access to asylum,” said Kagan. “I don't know whether all supporters of offering a path to citizenship to Dreamers would be willing to pay the price of closing or partly closing the American commitment to accessing asylum.”
The uncertainty has been stressful for Dreamers, whose fate has been up in the air for years.
“I have panic attacks,” said Diana Quiroz, a student at Purdue Global University and a DACA recipient. She will travel to Washington, D.C. this week to tell her story to members of Congress.
Quiroz has two children born in America. If a deal isn’t reached and DACA is discontinued, she could be separated from them.
“My children are everything,” said Quiroz. “If I’m deported to Mexico, I will not be able to be a mom to them. And they’re going to suffer.”
Nevertheless, she remains optimistic, perhaps out of necessity.
“I’m just thinking positive right now and hoping that they give us another opportunity,” said Quiroz.
Ariana Wyndham, also a student at Purdue Global University and a DACA recipient, will be traveling to Washington D.C. as well. But she is not following the political developments as closely as she has in the past.
“It just brings on a sense of anxiety for me,” said Wyndham. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, especially when so much of it will affect our life.”
Wyndham is not sure whether she can allow herself to hope.
“In a way, [I can],” she said. “And in other ways, I’m just like, ‘Nothing’s going to happen.’ Because nothing ever has.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.