Today is the last day that young, undocumented immigrants are supposed to be protected from deportation, and while courts have stopped the Trump administration from ending protections for the "Dreamers" temporarily, supporters are planning to spend the day rallying for a permanent immigration reform.
The immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey and dozens of other organizations areat six locations today to call for legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the Dreamers and their family members. Immigrants, elected officials, community activists, and others plan to fan out across the state to push for the congressional action that has been promised for months but did not happen.
An estimated 22,000 people living in New Jersey are Dreamers. They are among 800,000 nationwide who have received permission to work and remain in the United States for two years at a time under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program put in place in 2012 by President Barack Obama. DACA covers a specific group of immigrants who were brought to this country by parents or other relatives when they were under age 16 and meet other specific criteria, including either being enrolled in school or having completed at least a high school education, and having no criminal convictions. They have to reapply for protected status every two years.
Last September, Trump said he would halt the program unless Congress agreed to a permanent program. He set March 5 as the deadline for ending DACA.
But two federal court rulings, which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider last week, require Citizenship and Immigration Services to continue processing DACA renewals - although no new applications are being accepted. While that has made the March 5 deadline moot, the Dreamers and immigration advocates note that this protection is temporary and say they cannot be complacent.
"We are marking Congress' failure to meet the deadline," said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey. She said about 100 high school Dreamers who are members of her group worked with UdocuRutgers, a group that helps and advocates for undocumented students, on rallies to push for a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. For Erica Martinez, a senior at the Union County Academy for Allied Health Services, the issue is personal. She was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was two years old. She also knows dozens of other young people in the same situation as she is, having been brought here as children and with no permanent way to stay.
"We want to make it known that we don't want to see this delayed any longer," she said of protection for the Dreamers and their family members. "We have been waiting for action on this since last year."
"I don't understand why they won't pass a law to let us stay," said Felipe, a 26-year-old undocumented immigrant living in Hudson County who did not want to use his last name for fear of being targeted at a future date. "I came here with my mother. I went to school here. My family is all here. I work. I wouldn't know what to do if I was forced to go back to the Dominican Republic. My life is here."
"All the injunction does is kick the can down the road," Cullinane said of a court ruling that stops Trump from ending DACA today. "The Dreamers are living court date to court date … If the court decides next week that the injunction shouldn't stand, it could be made retroactive to this date."
Martinez is in a potentially precarious position: She is eligible for DACA, but had not yet applied and cannot do so at his point because USCIS is not accepting new applications. She said her mother had not applied for her when she became eligible because of her fear of Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and the "uncertainty" of what the future might hold.
At one point, finding a permanent replacement for DACA was a priority. The refusal of Senate Democrats and a few Republicans to vote for a temporary spending bill led to a brief government shutdown in January that ended with a promise by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that the Senate would vote on a DACA bill.
The Senate did vote last month on four separate immigrationon bills, but none got the 60 votes typically needed to pass a bill in the Senate. Gaining the most support was a measure that would have given 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a path to citizenship but would not have allowed them to sponsor their parents for legal status. It would also have provided $25 billion for border security. The bill got 54 votes from most Democrats and eight Republicans but that still was not enough to move it to the House. It also drew the ire of immigrants and advocates.
"Some elected officials were saying, 'We have to protect the Dreamers at all costs,' and I guess that's why they voted for it, but every Dreamer comes with a parent or parents who want to see them succeed," said Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. "They should have just passed a clean Dream Act."
The clean Dream Act that immigrants are seeking would simply provide a path to citizenship for those undocumented who were brought here as children and not address other immigration issues.
Advocates say that passing a Dream Act or some other protections for Dreamers is particularly important because they had no choice in coming to America, but were brought here by parents or other relatives, and have no real connection with - in some cases, no memory of - the place where they were born. And U.S. immigration law currently does not provide them with a way to become citizens.
"They are truly undocumented, with no legal option for regularizing their status," said Farrin Aniello, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which is a co-sponsor of today's rallies. "You can be the best parent, the best teacher, the best whatever. You can't fix your status."
In an effort to get a path to permanency here, thousands of Dreamers and their families are rallying with others today. In addition to the ACLU-NJ, NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and Make the Road NJ, the coalition includes such diverse groups as AAUP-AFT Rutgers, NAACP-New Brunswick Area Branch, League of Women Voters of NJ, Communications Workers of America -New Jersey, and the Green Party of NJ.
Rallies are being held at Rutgers University's Newark campus at 11 am, at its Camden campus at noon, and at the New Brunswick campus at 5 pm. In between, rallies are planned for the offices of three of the state's five Republican House members: 4th District Rep. Chris Smith's Hamilton office at 2 p.m.; 7th District Rep. Leonard Lance's Westfield office at 3 p.m.; and 2nd District Rep. Frank LoBiondo's Mays Landing office at 4 p.m.