By: Julia Preston on 2/3/14
WASHINGTON — Despite a defiant tone, immigrant youth leaders gathered here on Monday gave signs that they could consider supporting a Republican compromise proposal offering a path to citizenship for young people but not for other immigrants in the country illegally.
During a visit to Capitol Hill, the leaders struck a tough public posture.
“We will fight for the ultimate protection from deportation for our families through full access to citizenship,” said Carlos Rojas, 20, a leader from Boston for United We Dream, a national organization of undocumented immigrants who came here when they were children.
“We will hold the line where no one else will hold the line,” he said, drawing chants and cheers from young people who filled a House meeting room.
But behind the demands were signs of a willingness to consider something less than a direct path to citizenship for all the estimated 11.7 million immigrants in the country illegally, given that many Republican lawmakers remain reluctant even to take up the thorny issue this year, and that deportations by the Obama administration continue to be felt in immigrant neighborhoods.
“There is pain in our communities, and the most urgent issue for us is for the deportations to stop,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream. She said young immigrants would not accept any legislation that permanently barred immigrants from eventually becoming citizens, creating “a second-class status” for them. But she said the youths would wait to see the details of legislation proposed by Republicans before ruling anything out.
The youths, who call themselves Dreamers, promised to hold sit-ins at immigration detention centers to pressure President Obama to slow deportations, and protests at the offices of Republican lawmakers they see as blocking legislation. The youths also presented a response to the principles released by House Republican leaders at a party retreat last week.
In the Republicans’ most significant shift on the issue, the House leadership embraced a direct path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.” The principles offered legal status but “no special path to citizenship” to other immigrants “who broke our law.”
During more than a decade since Congress introduced the first bill to offer them citizenship, immigrant youths have built an extensive network with considerable clout in Washington and several statehouses. By maximizing the appeal of their stories of strivers seeking to attend college and better themselves the American way, the youths have become the sympathetic face of a shadow population of immigrants without papers.
“Dreamers have won the hearts of the Americans,” said Gaby Pacheco, a co-director of the Bridge Project, a group focused on working with Republicans to advance immigration legislation. “Being against Dreamers doesn’t sit well with people.”
Political pressure by the Dreamers played a big part in a significant success under the Obama administration for immigrant groups: a program granting the Dreamers reprieves from deportation.
But this month, Cesar Vargas, the co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, another youth group, started a furious debate among immigrant organizations with an open letter signed by more than 100 activists. “Focus on a practical legislative solution for immediate relief for families, even if it doesn’t include a special path to citizenship,” he wrote. “Our families and communities need relief now, not ideological hard lines.”
The move stemmed in part from growing frustration with Democrats while deportations under the Obama administration continue at a brisk pace.
“We want to show we are not loyal to any party,” Mr. Vargas said in an interview on Monday. “We will give credit to whoever will be the first to address the crisis of deportation.” He and other youth leaders said that gaining direct citizenship for the majority of illegal immigrants could be a later goal.
Deportations declined by 10 percent last year to about 365,000, according to federal figures, but still putting the total number under Mr. Obama close to two million.
On Monday, several young immigrants rose to tell of being forced apart from parents and other loved ones.
Although the path to citizenship remains a major issue in the debate, differences over immigration enforcement could eventually be more difficult to overcome. In sharp contrast to the Dreamers’ views, many Republican lawmakers contend that Mr. Obama has been generally lax on enforcement. According to the principles adopted by the House leaders, Republicans would insist on tightening security at the border and inside the country before any legalization could go forward.
“Here’s the issue that all Republicans agree on: We don’t trust the president to enforce the law,” Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. He added that it was not clear that Republicans would agree to advance legislation this year.
Some youth leaders said it was too soon to consider a compromise. “When I think of the civil rights movement,” said Lorella Praeli, advocacy director of United We Dream, “did Dr. King say we want half a vote?”
Share this page