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'We've been here before': Can Biden deliver on citizenship promise to Dreamers?

'We've been here before': Can Biden deliver on citizenship promise to Dreamers?

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DACA

Loyola Marymount University student and a DACA recipient Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, outside the Edward Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles. 

Almost a decade ago, Gabriela Cruz gained a sense of certainty when she applied for the Obama-era program that protects immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. For Cruz, it felt like the "first step" toward citizenship.

But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program the former president created through executive order proved less secure when Congress failed to put it into law and the Trump administration attempted to rescind and weaken it over the past four years.

Now, with President Joe Biden taking office and Democratic majorities in Congress, so-called Dreamers like Cruz could be feeling optimistic that lawmakers finally will resolve their legal status. But many of them are on guard, wary of being disappointed again.

"As much as I want to believe (Biden), I also want action, because we've been here before," Cruz said. "We've been under an administration who had full control of the House and the Senate. And yet, did not pass anything permanent for us."

Immigration reform is high on Biden's agenda — one of his first executive orders called on Congress to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers. He's released plans indicating he wants to undo a raft of Trump's immigration executive orders and separately provide an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of immigrants.

"It will be about creating a pathway for people to earn citizenship, we're going to reduce the time from what has been 13 years to eight years, we're going to expand protection for Dreamers and DACA recipients," Vice President Kamala Harris said in an interview with Univision last week, describing an immigration bill that Biden's administration is shopping in Congress.

Some Republicans at times have voiced support for a law providing citizenship to about 800,000 Dreamers like Cruz, but passing it is no guarantee.

Any immigration law almost certainly require 60 votes in the Senate to clear a potential filibuster, meaning Democrats will need some Republican votes to pass it into law. Under current numbers, that would mean Democrats have to find at least 10 Senate Republicans to vote for the bill.

Why Dreamers want a law

The distinction between legislation and an executive order is important to Dreamers.

Obama's DACA policy helped Dreamers feel more secure in the U.S., but it didn't provide them a permanent path to citizenship. And an executive order means they're only protected as long as the president in power supports the DACA program.

President Trump shut down the DACA program when he took office in 2017, declining to allow more people to sign up, though previous DACA recipients could continue to renew their status. The administration and states filed multiple lawsuits to dismantle the program completely. The Supreme Court upheld the DACA program in June 2020.

The ruling was supposed to mean that more qualifying Dreamers could sign up for DACA protection, but the Trump administration said shortly after the ruling that it would not do so.

The Biden administration at a minimum can allow more people to enroll for the DACA program.

"There is a clear commitment on behalf of the incoming administration to use executive action to shore up protections for DACA recipients today," said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress. "At the same time, I'm sure that they're also paying attention to what is yet to come from a federal court in Texas."

That ongoing case, led by the state of Texas, challenges the legality of the DACA program itself. The previous case challenged how Obama enacted the policy.

People enrolled in the program today say they'll press Biden's administration to pass a law.

"You can expect Dreamers to hold Democratic elected officials as accountable as we've been trying to hold Republican elected officials accountable for the last four years," said Robert Nunez, 26, a DACA recipient in Sacramento who works for an organization that advocates for increasing health care access for Latino Californians.

California's new senator

If Republicans senators won't support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, then the filibuster in the Senate remains a concern, according to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"I hope and believe that the legislative effort would also be a priority for this administration," Saenz said. "It's certainly more than warranted by the continued contributions of DACA recipients have made through the pandemic."

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, at a recent press briefing advocated for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Nearly 57,000 DACA recipients in the state are considered essential workers, of which 8,600 work in health care occupations, according to the Center for American Progress.

"(I) completely support providing dreamers, the protections and pathway to citizenship that they deserve as well," Padilla said, adding that he "fully expects that's going to be part of comprehensive immigration reform that we will get done this session."

One of those essential workers is Jesus Hermosillo, who was 5 years old when he arrived to the U.S. from Mexico. The program allowed Hermosillo to attend college at UC Santa Cruz and eventually get a job at UC Davis Health as a researcher.

"We want some reassurance that this program isn't going to be cut," the Sacramento resident, 27, said. "I grew up in this country. I know this country a lot more than I know Mexico."

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