Immigration Advocates Look Back At Long Fight For DREAM Act

Jan 23, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 9:16 am

The government shutdown ended with a promise that the Senate will take up the fate of DACA recipients next month. But that outcome was still unsatisfactory for many immigrant advocates because they've heard this before. Some have been fighting for the DREAM Act since they were teenagers and are now nearing 40.

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All right, as we just heard, a big sticking point in the congressional negotiations over immigration is the fate of the DREAMers, the millions of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, it's a fight that's been escalating for decades.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The DREAM Act started with one undocumented immigrant. She's sometimes called the first DREAMer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEREZA LEE PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S "FANTASIE-IMPROMPTU NO. 4 IN C SHARP MINOR, OP. 66")

ROSE: Tereza Lee is a pianist and music teacher. This is her performing last year at member station WNYC. Lee was born in Brazil to Korean parents. She moved to Chicago when she was 2 and became a teenage prodigy. Her mentor encouraged her to apply to the top conservatories in the country, but Lee refused. Eventually, she confessed what no one outside her immediate family knew - she was in the country illegally.

TEREZA LEE: I was hysterical. And I was in tears. And I told her, please don't report me to the police.

ROSE: Instead, Lee's mentor went to Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. She inspired Durbin to introduce a bill in 2001 that would create a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. He called it the DREAM Act.

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DICK DURBIN: If you grew up in this country and graduated from high school, if you had no serious problems with any criminal activity or background, we would give you a chance - just a chance.

ROSE: The name stuck, and young undocumented immigrants started to identify as DREAMers.

CRISTINA JIMENEZ: I have been organizing since I was 19 years old, and I'm 33 (laughter). So it's been quite a time.

ROSE: Cristina Jimenez came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 13. She's the co-founder of the activist group United We Dream.

JIMENEZ: Every year that we fought for the DREAM Act I had hope that we could win. And every year, you know, I would be disappointed and sad.

ROSE: The DREAM Act finally passed the House in 2010, almost a decade after it was first introduced. But it stalled in the Senate. Here's Republican Jeff Sessions - then a senator, now the attorney general - explaining why he voted no.

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JEFF SESSIONS: This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity.

ROSE: Hard-liners consider the DREAM Act an amnesty that would encourage more illegal immigration. But DREAMers and their allies kept up pressure on the White House, and in 2012 President Obama announced a new policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in the Rose Garden.

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BARACK OBAMA: Now, let's be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix.

ROSE: Indeed, the Trump administration is terminating DACA, leaving roughly 700,000 young immigrants without work permits or protection from deportation. Today, public opinion is largely behind letting the DREAMers stay. That idea has support from some Republicans as well as most Democrats. But the issue is caught up in the larger debate about immigration. The White House says any deal should include big changes to the legal immigration system and billions of dollars for a border wall. That's left the Democratic Party split with some willing to make concessions and others flatly refusing. Still, Cristina Jimenez says, this is progress.

JIMENEZ: I never thought that it would take us this long, but I feel really proud of the fact that the entire country is now engaging in the conversation about our lives and our families and our right to be here.

ROSE: While that debate continues, roughly a hundred people are losing their DACA status every week and don't know if they'll ever get it back. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report we say that roughly 100 people are losing their DACA status per week. We should have said per day.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.