News & Politics

Immigrants Tell Trump: We Won’t Trade Our Freedoms

The White House is seeking to crack down on some undocumented U.S. residents in exchange for legalizing Dreamers

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After weeks of fraught negotiations, the fate of a potential legislative replacement for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program still hasn’t been resolved, leaving the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Americans previously shielded by the program in a state of legal limbo as its March 5 termination date approaches.

The possibility of a compromise with Democratic congressional leaders — which would have involved granting permanent legal status to DACA recipients in exchange for a border security boost — was thrown into further doubt recently when the White House walked back a verbal agreement that had apparently been reached between Trump and Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. A series of new Trump demands included increased funding for federal immigration officers and for the construction of his much-maligned border wall, proposals that are anathema to most immigrant advocates.

That list of conditions, which was released by the White House about two weeks ago, also includes a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities and on unaccompanied minors entering the United States, effectively threatening other undocumented immigrants in exchange for Dreamer protections. Trump’s list also seeks to upend decades of federal immigration policy by limiting family-based immigration and restricting green cards to the spouses or minor children of current U.S. residents.

Amid the federal uncertainty, the estimated 50,000 Dreamers in New York have taken pains to present a unified, optimistic front. On Thursday, a group of about 30 Dreamers and supporters walked across the Long Island district of GOP congressman and immigration hardliner Peter King, starting at around 9 a.m. in Bay Shore and ending up seven and a half hours and about twelve miles later at King’s office in Massapequa Park. Clad in blue and orange, they chanted and carried banners and balloons imploring King to support a “clean” DREAM Act — one that would enshrine legal protections for current DACA recipients without increased enforcement against other immigrants.

As the marchers passed strip malls, gas stations, and bemused groups of teens practicing lacrosse, they received consistent shows of support, with cars and trucks honking and drivers flashing the thumbs up. (In half an hour of marching with the group, I saw only one explicit display of disapproval, when a woman rolled down her passenger side window and hollered “Go home!”)

“For us, it’s been clear that the administration and Republicans have pursued this white nationalist agenda where immigrants always lose,” said Walter Barrientos, a Long Island organizer for the group Make the Road New York, which organized the march and rally. A compromise that would protect some immigrants at the cost of others and preclude family members from immigrating, he said, is “a nonchoice for families.”

The group rallied in front of King’s office, which appeared to be closed, with locked doors and no visible staff; a spokesperson for King did not return a request for comment.

Marcy Suarez, a 22-year-old college student and DACA recipient who was in the march, echoed Barrientos, saying there was no deal she could think of that she would find adequate beyond a clean DREAM Act. “We’ve had enough deportations. More enforcement is not acceptable, and the border wall is pointless,” she said.

Nationwide, immigrant activists have expressed frustration with the way the negotiations are being handled not only by skeptical Republicans but by ostensibly Dreamer-friendly Democrats. “We cannot throw anyone under the bus in exchange for a green card,” said Cesar Vargas, who last year became the first undocumented individual to become a licensed attorney in New York. Vargas was speaking by phone from Wyoming, where he’d gone to confer with immigration activists and hold workshops. “For me particularly it hits home because I have DACA and I want a permanent solution, but I’m not going to put in the crosshairs of the deportation regime my mother, or even my clients.”

“Frankly, I think it’s a debacle,” Vargas said of the negotiations. “For me as an attorney, my training is to ensure that, whether it’s for a client or for a specific issue, you have to start from a position of strength in a negotiation,” he said, before accusing congressional leaders of being to ready to buckle under pressure from the Republican right wing.

Other activists wondered whether enforcement and border wall stipulations are poison pills intentionally designed to derail the discussions and turn immigrants against one another. “It all seems very orchestrated. It doesn’t feel that this was done in good faith,” said Denisse Rojas, a DACA recipient and student at Icahn School of Medicine in New York who runs a group for Dreamers involved in medicine. “It didn’t happen out of necessity.”

“Implementing more security, implementing more money for the border, that’s saying that they want to continue with family separation,” added Antonio Alarcon, a Make the Road organizer.

Vargas, for his part, was willing to give the president some credit. “I do truly believe that he did want to get a solution, and that included money for border security, that included money for better technology,” he said. He speculated that some of the people surrounding the president, such as the notoriously anti-immigrant White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, may be trying to sabotage the talks.

While the DREAM Act is the most widely known, three other bills with variations of protections for current DACA recipients have been introduced to Congress. “There are a couple of sponsors in the Senate, a couple of sponsors in the House who were at some point very anti-immigrant who are now sponsoring the bills,” said Alarcon.

Activist Tereza Lee, who inspired Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to draft the original DREAM Act in 2001, pointed out that both Republican congress members and White House staffers have made comments suggesting they might be open to a path to citizenship for undocumented people. Yet the negotiations remain totally unpredictable due to what Vargas called the “wild card”: Donald Trump himself.

Mostly, the organizers and Dreamers talk about urgency. “This isn’t the time for a laundry list of issues,” said Rojas. While she supports an eventual comprehensive immigration reform that will protect all undocumented immigrants, she stressed that for now, the imperative thing was to get the DREAM Act or a variation through Congress.

“We need to make sure that we pass a clean DREAM Act. If they want to include everything else, that should be off the table, and we should fight against it,” said Alarcon.

As March 5 approaches, the Dreamers and their supporters expect to be fighting every day, and they have a lot of energy. Asked whether she was tired after having marched for more than six hours, Suarez, one of the marchers headed to King’s office, shrugged. “It’s nothing compared to what my seven-year-old self went through to get to the United States,” she said, before hoisting up her banner and continuing on.

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