WASHINGTON — Last September, Karla Aguirre left her family and her South Carolina hometown and boarded a flight to Washington, D.C., to fight for her right to remain in the United States. It was supposed to be a short trip — there was bipartisan support in Congress for measures to protect undocumented immigrants like her. But more than four months later, she’s still here.
“There’s no reason for me to go back home where things are going to be exactly the same,” Aguirre, 22, said. “The point of us being here is to make a change. ... This is my work, to make sure that my family is OK.”
Aguirre is one of hundreds of undocumented young people who have uprooted their lives to advocate for a bill that would grant them legal status and a path to citizenship. In the nation’s capital, they sleep in churches, houses and, less often, hotels. They spend their days preparing to go to the Capitol, visiting lawmakers’ offices and sharing their stories in hopes of rallying support. They spend their nights hanging out and talking, often too tired to do much else. Their form of fun is chanting, Aguirre said.
Many of these young activists hoped to be home by now. President Donald Trump declared an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, in September, setting in motion a process that will eventually cause nearly 700,000 undocumented young people to lose two-year work permits and deportation protections unless Congress steps in. Trump set a “deadline” of March 5, at which time large numbers of DACA recipients will begin to lose their protections each day, although thousands already have. Because of a court ruling, DACA recipients can currently apply for an individual renewal, but the Trump administration is fighting to stop them.
Democrats promised to push for renewed protections by the end of December, and then again in January, and they’re still promising now, but there haven’t been votes on a DACA bill in either the House or the Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans. Trump offered a framework last month that the White House said would give a path to citizenship to 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants, but he also demanded expansive border security resources, a wall, more ease in deporting children and asylum-seekers, and unrelated cuts to legal immigration. Democrats and even some Republicans shot down the idea. Trump isn’t budging — he said on Tuesday that he would “love to see a shutdown” of the government over it.
That means activists like Aguirre can’t go home yet. She is now working for United We Dream, an advocacy group led by undocumented youth. The group has been holding training sessions for roughly 300 undocumented young people from around the country each week ― they come to Washington with their own funds or the help of donors ― to teach them how to share their stories and push for reform. They then go back home and encourage others to do the same. When undocumented immigrants make visits to lawmakers’ offices, Aguirre is often on the first floor of the building, ready to help if anything goes awry.
Immigration advocates strongly believe that personal stories are more effective than appeals to lawmakers’ political interests in pushing them to embrace reform. But personal stories can be difficult for undocumented immigrants to share, given the trauma that led many of them to the U.S. and the history of keeping quiet about their immigration status. Aguirre came to the U.S. with her family when she was 6 years old, trying to escape poverty and violence in Mexico. She first received DACA protections in 2013, and her current permit expires in 2019.
Aguirre attended a semester of college but wasn’t able to finish a degree because of the cost. Although some states offer lower in-state tuition at public universities to undocumented immigrants who grew up there, South Carolina does not. Initially, she didn’t see herself reflected in the Dreamer narrative, which in the past focused largely on young people in graduation caps and gowns or holding upscale jobs. She wants lawmakers to know that undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children all deserve help ― as do their families.
Arlin, a 19-year-old DACA recipient who asked that her last name be withheld because of safety concerns, also feels the narrative about Dreamers needs to be more inclusive. She left Mexico at age 3 and grew up in a small town in North Carolina. Arlin graduated from high school last June but isn’t attending college because even with scholarships, it’s too expensive. (North Carolina also bars undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.)
Arlin arrived in Washington in November for a United We Dream training and, like Aguirre, decided to devote herself to the cause full-time. She came back later in the month and has been here since, other than a few brief breaks for holidays and after the last shutdown. She is involved in many of the office visits, where undocumented young people try to talk to lawmakers in person. When they can’t, they sometimes refuse to leave until they’re kicked out.
Some people argue these office takeovers don’t work, Aguirre said, but she supports the tactic. They only do it, she said, if they can’t get politicians to talk to the people who have traveled far to be there.
The young activists have been helped through the ups and downs of the past months by the sense of community among those in D.C. People who were born all over the world and grew up all over the U.S. are here in Washington for the same goal. Arlin has been inspired by hearing from people who graduated from college or landed their dream jobs, and dismayed by the stories from people living near the border who are afraid to go to the hospital because it’s past a checkpoint. She has heard about friends’ families and then met them in person. Fellow undocumented advocates now feel like her family, too.
When Senate Democrats voted last month to reopen the government without renewing DACA protections, many undocumented young people watched from the gallery in tears. But Arlin said she reminded them that they are powerful.
“We’re undocumented folks ― we weren’t supposed to make it this far,” she said. “We have people who have graduated college, we have people with jobs, we have people in Washington, D.C., in the Capitol, being undocumented, being unafraid and just shouting out their stories.”