by Rhina Guidos
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Supporters of youth who came to the U.S. without documents as children descended on Washington in early December, risking arrest and seeking attention from lawmakers during what they believe is the last window of opportunity this year to pass legislation to help the youth stay in the country.
Supporters came from California, New York and places in between, with signs, drums, guitars, photos and thoughts of loved ones, taking out their worries and frustrations, venting their hopes for passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, at a Dec. 6 rally near the U.S. Capitol.
In September, President Donald Trump announced he was ending the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, or DACA, that allowed some 750,000 to 800,000 young adults who were brought into the country as children and who met certain conditions to attend school, work and even have a driver’s license. Though he ended the program, he urged Congress to find a solution before the first of the program’s permits expire as early as March.
That expiration date and what will happen when it arrives has many young adults and their loved ones worried, said Vamba Fofana, national executive vice president for the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas in New York, who attended the day of action and demonstration at the Capitol.
Since the youth had to provide the government information about where they work and where they live to apply for DACA, many young adults who benefited from it now worry the information they gave will be used to deport them, Fofana told Catholic News Service. Some of them don’t know whether they can remain in school or at work, or drive since those documents are at peril.
“Obviously, they are in limbo,” said Fofana, whose organization was part of a larger group that included workers movements, faith groups, including many Catholics, and students at a mass gathering to show support. “We feel we can collectively put pressure on Congress.”
Supporters want a solution by the end of the year. Though little has been revealed, some speculate that Democrats are seeking to negotiate DACA as part of a spending bill that must be approved by Dec. 22 or the country faces a government shutdown. Republicans have publicly said they do not want to include legislation benefiting immigrants as part of the spending bill, setting up a political showdown over immigration just before Christmas.
As some lawmakers and congressional staffers passed by the gathering Dec. 6, some attendees sang “Trump can’t grab this dream, we shall not be moved. . .” to the tune of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a popular civil rights anthem, just outside Union Station, a main transportation hub for politicians going in and out of Washington en route to the Capitol. The song expresses resiliency in adversity because of faith in God.
“We’re here to join in solidarity,” said Fofana. “We think [the youth] have a future in this country, a country immigrants have helped advance.”
Bob Fulkerson, state director and co-founder of the grass-roots organization Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said this is a unique time. And it is probably, he said, about as close as supporters have ever come to a successful legislative solution to help the youth but it can’t be done while putting in place actions to hurt other immigrants, including carrying out plans to end programs such as Temporary Protected Status.
The TPS program, as it’s popularly known, has been around for 27 years and provides a work permit and reprieve from deportation to immigrants from some countries recovering from conflicts or natural disasters.
In November, the Trump administration wiped out TPS, effective July 2019, for about 59,000 Haitians who benefited from the program after a devastating earthquake on the island in 2010. TPS programs for El Salvador and Honduras also will be up for renewal in early 2018, and Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, has signaled that he wants to end those programs.
Nevada’s Fulkerson, who was one of hundreds arrested Dec. 6 for refusing to disperse from the steps of the capitol as he demanded Congress take action, said this is the time for lawmakers to do something but without seeking to hurt others. A variety of polls from major news organizations show a majority of the U.S. public favors finding a solution to help the youth, who serve in a variety of careers, including in the military and as teachers in public schools. Many are enrolled in college.
Supporters worry that any negotiations to help the youth will ultimately end up hurting their family members, as deals are made to protect some migrants and not others.
The situation of Casandra Mendez, a 17-year-old present at the rally with a group from Christ the King Parish in Glen Burnie, Maryland, illustrates the complexity of immigration problems one family can face.
While Casandra is a U.S. citizen because she was born in the U.S., some of her siblings and her parents, were born in Mexico and are do not have documents. Though her brother may benefit from passage of a DREAM Act, it doesn’t solve the looming threat of deportation for other family members. If it passes the measure would create a path of citizenship for DACA beneficiaries.
She said she attended the rally hoping to influence immigration relief at least for her brother, who was finally able to enroll in college at age 25 with help from DACA and wants to open a business. Casandra lives with memories of disappearing family members, including a group deported from Buffalo, New York, because someone saw them clearing the snow in the streets and called immigration agents to have them deported, she said. She finds it hard to understand, she said, the hateful sentiments.
“We pay taxes, which is more than what some U.S. citizens [who protest taxes] do,” she said. “We work, we don’t stand in the streets asking anyone for money, we’re not lazy.”
All she wishes for is a peace she’s never known, one that removes the stress that someone in her family could be taken away.
Concepcion Morales, another Christ the King parishioner who attended the event, said it was important to show up and support members of his community, particularly because so many are experiencing fear. He said Congress can alleviate some of the fear.
“They have to act,” he said.
Some Catholics such as Eli S. McCarthy, director of justice and peace at the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, and Sara Benitez, Latino program director for the Washington-based Faith in Public Life, joined religious brothers and sisters, including Maryknoll and Franciscans, and other lay Catholics in getting arrested Dec. 6 to call attention to the immigrants’ plight.
“My faith calls me to love my neighbor,” Benitez said. “Today my immigrant neighbors, who have DACA and TPS, are in danger of being separated from their families and their communities.”
“There is a moment in each of our lives when we are challenged to either say enough is enough, or to go about our daily routine and maintain an unjust status quo,” said McCarthy. “There is a moment when our hearts burn and a passion wells up inside us to burst into the world.
“Today was one of those days where over 215 people, including myself and many religious leaders said with our bodies that enough is enough.”