David Soto was downcast after news the government is phasing out a program that has shielded him from deportation for almost five years. But before long, the 32-year-old from Eagan was asking himself: What can I do?
Within hours of last week’s announcement that the Trump administration is ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a diverse cast of Minnesotans with a stake in the program sprang to action.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation geared up to tackle proposals that could open a path to citizenship for almost 800,000 recipients nationwide — the kind of immigration legislation that has bedeviled Congress for years. Supporters of the program, including recipients sometimes called Dreamers, arrived en masse in some Republicans’ offices to urge them to back such proposals.
“The beauty of the Dreamers is they grew up here,” said Pablo Tapia of the advocacy group La Asamblea de Derechos Civiles. “They know the political structure, the language and the culture.”
Meanwhile, volunteer attorneys rallied to help those among the state’s roughly 6,300 DACA recipients eligible to renew their status before an Oct. 5 deadline — and prepare those who don’t have that option. The state’s attorney general, Lori Swanson, mulled joining a lawsuit challenging the move to end DACA, an Obama program that granted two-year work permits to immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Some lawmakers are vowing to fight congressional proposals they say represent a concession to families who broke immigration laws — a move, they argue, that could spur more illegal immigration.
A call to action
The nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota is getting offers of help from many in its network of about 60 volunteer lawyers. DACA recipients whose status expires before March 5 have just a few weeks to renew their permits.
“Our pro bono attorneys love these young adults and love having a role in helping them,” said John Keller, the center’s executive director.
The center also reactivated a hot line it first started after President Donald Trump’s order suspending travel from six Muslim-majority countries — this time to answer questions from DACA recipients.
The University of Minnesota’s Immigration Response Team, also launched after the travel ban, was “inundated” with questions from students and staff looking to support them, said its director, Marissa Hill-Dongre. The U doesn’t know how many students rely on DACA, but Hill-Dongre said some wanted to find out if they are eligible to renew their permits.
Others sought advice on whether it would be safe to attend conferences or study abroad.
During a forum at El Colegio, a Minneapolis charter school, student volunteers from Mitchell Hamline School of Law came to screen recipients for avenues to legal status. Some could qualify for visas for crime victims or sponsorship by a U.S. citizen relative.
Before qualifying for DACA, Soto, a graduate of Dakota County Technical College, was checking in regularly with immigration authorities while an attorney tried to avert his deportation. He says the program eased his fear that he could be sent back to Mexico, which his family left when he was 7.
Soto, who works as a financial and housing counselor at the Latino nonprofit CLUES, appeared at a forum that Sen. Amy Klobuchar hosted Saturday at the Church of St. Stephen in Minneapolis.
“I am an optimist, a forward-thinking type of person,” he said. “I have never been politically involved, but I am trying to do my part.”
Trump gave Congress six months to pass legislation that has stumped lawmakers from both parties. Again and again through three different administrations, the so-called DREAM Act came up for a vote, only to fail. Now, the president who campaigned on tougher immigration enforcement could be the one who helps carve a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, says Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, whose Minneapolis district is home to many of them.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting — the most anti-immigrant president in anyone’s memory ends up being the one to sign the DREAM Act?” he said. “That would be stunning irony. Honestly, I’d rather have a good DREAM Act than a presidential order.”
There are bipartisan efforts in both the House and Senate to resurrect the DREAM Act — and the new deadline had many lawmakers eyeing other immigration proposals they can slip in, potentially complicating negotiations.
“There are opportunities here for bipartisanship, for those of us who don’t believe we should round these people up and kick them out of the country,” said Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen.
Paulsen has seen his own party block his proposals aimed at keeping highly skilled immigrant workers. But “the issue is ripe for compromise,” he said, and the DREAM Act could end up packaged with more high-tech and agricultural visas — or increased funding for border security.
Six months is enough time for Congress to come up with a compromise, said Republican Rep. Jason Lewis. But that doesn’t mean he will vote for it.
“I see both sides, which is precisely why you want to take your time and get it right,” he said. “On the one hand, these young people broke no laws. On the other hand, you could see a wave of parents who [think], ‘I’ve just got to get my youngster across the border.’ ”
Minnesota’s members of Congress already are hearing from DACA recipients and others. Bill Blazar, who heads public affairs for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is voicing support for a bipartisan Senate proposal that would put DACA recipients on a path to citizenship. Blazar said he is asking employers whether the chamber should also press for a more streamlined visa application process for temporary laborers and other changes.
“As businesspeople we need to roll up our sleeves and encourage Congress to solve this problem,” he said.
To Kim Crockett at the Center of the American Experiment, the urgency presents an opportunity for Republicans to demand concessions on border security and more. Crockett, an attorney who supports Trump’s tougher immigration stance but is sympathetic to Dreamers, says they should focus on strategic outreach, not disruptive protests that can squander the public’s goodwill.
“They need to tone down the rhetoric and stop listening to radical immigration lawyers,” she said. “Calm down and see this as an opportunity.”
More lobbying is in the works, said Tapia of the group Asamblea. Later this month, the group is organizing a three-bus caravan that will visit the offices of all congressional Republicans in the state.
“I am not optimistic about Congress,” he said. “But I am optimistic that we the people can make Congress do the right thing by putting pressure on them.”