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‘This Is Our Home’: Dreamers and Advocates Testify at Senate Hearing, Urge Congress to Act to Permanent Protections

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Mitchell Soto-Rodriguez, the first DACA recipient to be sworn in as a police officer in Illinois’ Blue Island community, was among voices calling for permanent relief for young undocumented immigrants during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. While the program has allowed her to pursue her professional dreams in law enforcement, she described her life before DACA as “incredibly difficult,” including being denied a driver’s license and being afraid to call the police after a car struck her and her family.

“We were afraid because we were undocumented. But the police officer who came to the scene showed compassion,” she told lawmakers. “The moment inspired me to serve in law enforcement.” Soto-Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. when she was eight, made headlines after making DACA history earlier this year. “Having DACA allows us to become successful in life and to make a difference in the country that has seen us grow up,” she continued. “For many of us, the countries we come from are just in our memories. The only country we know is here where we stay. This is our home, the country that many of us provide to, we serve proudly.”

She wasn’t the only success story in the room on Wednesday. Gabriela “Gaby” Pacheco, a former Dreamer who came to the U.S. when she was eight, invoked her famous 1,500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C. in 2010 to urge the Obama administration to act on relief for young immigrants. Just two years later, DACA was born. Now a U.S. citizen and president of the national scholarship fund Dream.US, the immigrant rights leader testified that hundreds of thousands of others deserve the same chances.

“Unfortunately, for Dreamers with and without DACA, their future remains uncertain, their dreams overshadowed by the fear of what will happen when the DACA program ends and the continued inability for younger Dreamers to even apply into the DACA program in the first place,” she said. “For example, this academic year, we welcomed our largest-ever cohort of new TheDream.US Scholars. Three-fourths of them lack DACA status, largely due to ongoing legal challenges that have barred new applicants into the program.”

Due to GOP litigation in Texas, no first-time DACA applications are allowed. But even if they were permitted, many recent high school graduates wouldn’t be able to apply due to the program criteria. This number totaled nearly 100,000 new graduates last year alone. “This is not just a policy issue—it’s a profound moral test of whether we hold true to the ideals we so proudly proclaim,” Pacheco continued. “It is about the kind of nation we want to be: one that empowers the best and brightest within its nation or one that squanders potential in favor of inaction.”

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s “Dream Deferred: The Urgent Need to Protect Immigrant Youth” hearing, Dream.US, which has helped thousands of undocumented students achieve their higher educational goals, released a letter signed by more than 1,600 of its alumni and scholars urging Congress to act on permanent relief.

“This month, many of us will participate in a few of the commencement ceremonies taking place across the nation, becoming part of the 4,000+ TheDream.US Alumni contributing to the American economy,” the letter said. “While we are excited to take this next step, we are stymied by the instability of our status … Without access to work permits, we are unable to make full use of our degrees. Without access to permanent legal status, we face daily insecurity that undermines our attempts to establish ourselves as entrepreneurial members of our communities.”

“Providing Dreamers with pathways to citizenship isn’t just a matter of fairness; it’s an investment in the future of our nation,” Soto-Rodriguez concluded. “It’s a moral imperative. It’s the protection of the American dream. By embracing solutions to provide Dreamers permanent solutions that are only possible through legislation, Congress can finally do its part to harness the talents and potential of millions of individuals like myself who call this country home. The economic and social benefits of fully integrating Dreamers into our communities, would be a massive boost for our families, communities and country who all have come to see our contributions over the last 12+ years of DACA protections. All we want is to pursue our dreams without fear of deportation or discrimination.”

In his remarks, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted the contributions and achievements of Tereza Lee, who learned that she was undocumented while filing out her paperwork to apply to the Manhattan Conservatory of Music. She had lived in the U.S. since she was just two years old and had known no place but America as her home. Sen. Durbin said that Lee inspired him first to introduce the Dream Act more than two decades ago.

“I started to speak in Illinois and on the Senate floor about the challenges these young Americans face. Their stories stay with us, because we see ourselves reflected in them. Many Dreamers would approach and whisper to me, ‘Senator, I’m one of those children you were talking about,’” he said. “While a bipartisan majority of Senators has supported the Dream Act on numerous occasions, unfortunately, it has been [repeatedly] filibustered when it comes to the floor.”

In poll after poll, overwhelming majorities of Americans support a pathway to legalization for Dreamers. During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) urged Durbin to bring the Dream Act to the Senate floor for a vote and to let the American people know where lawmakers stand. We certainly know where Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) stands. He claimed during the hearing that he’s been “very sympathetic to the plight” of Dreamers. But that’s just more of the trademark “Cornyn Con” because receipts from America’s Voice show he voted against the Dream Act in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2018.

Following the hearing, Senators Durbin and Padilla were among lawmakers who joined advocates from FWD.us, American Families United, UnidosUS, CASA, and others to call on President Biden to protect long-term undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“President Biden should seize this critical moment by exercising his Executive Authority to rebuild our broken immigration system. We urge him to provide pathways to citizenship and protections for the millions of long-term undocumented residents who have contributed to the rich fabric of the United States,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Barragán. “These are our uncles, aunts, parents, friends, and loved ones, who have raised their own families right here in our neighborhoods. They call America their permanent home, they deserve the chance to come out of the shadows.”

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