A Minneapolis student walkout, a 12-day hunger strike, a news conference by Minnesota’s lieutenant governor and video messages featuring local executives — all are part of a push to get Congress to shield young immigrants from deportation.
When his administration said it would phase out an Obama administration deportation reprieve program for immigrants who arrived illegally as children, President Donald Trump urged Congress to come up with a replacement by March. But local advocates and lawmakers are pressing for action this week, before Congress enters a contentious midterm election year and Democrats lose the leverage of a must-pass spending bill. Some Minnesota Democrats and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen have been vocal in their support for opening a path to citizenship for a group known as Dreamers, including about 6,300 Minnesota recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
“These are America’s children,” said Paulsen, co-author of a bill that would extend protections for Dreamers. “These are young people who know no other country. It makes no sense to kick them out.”
But legislation to help DACA recipients also faces intense opposition from advocates for less immigration, who see it as rewarding families that violated the country’s immigration laws. They are highlighting a new Congressional Budget Office report that estimated one bill, the DREAM Act of 2017, would increase the federal deficit by almost $26 billion over a decade, mainly by making an estimated 2 million potential beneficiaries and relatives they could eventually sponsor for residence eligible for education and other benefits.
On Wednesday, a district court judge holds a hearing in a lawsuit by Minnesota and three other states that challenged the plan to end DACA.
Sense of urgency
Facing a lawsuit threat by a group of Republican-led states, the Trump administration announced this fall it would begin phasing out DACA in March. Since its launch in 2012, the program has granted deportation protections and work permits to almost 800,000 young immigrants nationally.
In Congress, negotiations are underway over a bipartisan deal that could give DACA recipients a path to citizenship in exchange for investments in border security, such as increased electronic and drone surveillance. A group of House and Senate Democrats along with two Florida Republicans have said they will not back a spending bill to keep the government funded into 2018 without a deal on the Dreamers. Those include Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who has pointed to reports that more than 12,000 DACA recipients who did not meet a deadline to renew their work permits this fall have lost their status.
Last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., took to the Senate floor to call for passage of the DREAM Act, whose House version is co-sponsored by Minnesota Democratic Reps. Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Richard Nolan and Ellison. She pointed to a study showing more than 100 DACA recipients applied to medical school last year, at a time when rural Minnesota struggles with a physician shortage.
“While some have suggested we wait until March to fix this issue, the reality is the Senate needs to take action now,” she said. “We must end this uncertainty for Dreamers.”
Paulsen said both Republicans and Democrats are trying to tack on other items to Dreamer legislation, but he believes they need to set aside such demands to resolve what he deemed the most pressing immigration issue this year. His bill, which would cover fewer people than the DREAM Act, extends deportation protections for five years and opens an avenue to apply for legal permanent residence.
Meanwhile, DACA recipients and their supporters in Minnesota have ratcheted up their advocacy. In a news conference earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, and advocates called out the state’s Republican delegation, arguing their inaction would make them responsible if Minnesota DACA recipients are deported. They pointed to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study estimating that recipients contribute as much as $15 million in local and state taxes.
A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce-led business coalition released a series of videos calling for DREAM Act passage featuring a vice president at General Mills and others. Also earlier in December, several hundred Minneapolis students walked out of classes and marched down Nicollet Avenue to call for passage of a no-strings-attached, or “clean,” DREAM Act. Southwest High junior Angelica Bello, a DACA recipient who helped organize the protest, also traveled to Washington, D.C., in late November with a group from the advocacy group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles to lobby.
“Our days are numbered,” Bello said. “As each day passes, students are exposed to being deported.”
One member of the group, Antonia Alvarez, stayed in Washington for a 12-day fast and said she spoke with hundreds about her cause, from tourists to members of Congress. She says her three children who benefited from DACA are now attending Minnesota universities and working: “We are all in limbo.”
Both she and Bello this week returned to Washington, where Dreamers, known for their political savvy, have kept up a steady presence in recent weeks.
DACA opponents have also kept up pressure on Congress. Some oppose any agreement, while others urge Republicans to secure major concessions in return, from investments in enforcement to reductions in legal immigration.
Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and Sen. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., did not respond to requests for comment, but they have previously called for treading cautiously on a legislative effort to replace DACA, which Lewis said could encourage more illegal immigration. Paulsen said he believes a majority of his constituents support such legislation, but he has also heard from voters urging him not to grant “amnesty” to people living in the country illegally.
At the Twin Cities-based Center for the American Experiment, attorney Kim Crockett says it’s important not to rush the legislation. She says Minnesota needs immigrant workers and lawmakers should “keep the welcome mat out” — but be more discriminating about who can stay. She said any deal should exclude those who committed crimes and who fail to learn English, enroll in school or get a job.
“The last thing we need to do is offer amnesty to people who are not contributing to our country and can safely return to their own country,” she said.
Jesús Garcia, a biology student at the University of Minnesota, says this is a key time to show many DACA recipients like him are eager to contribute. He took time from studying for finals and prepping for a medical school acceptance exam to rally support.
“It’s hard concentrating in school knowing you might not have a future,” he said. “We are all playing a waiting game.”