For more than a decade, immigrants lacking a legal status who arrived in the country as children have pushed for a pathway to citizenship. Known as “dreamers,” these youth have been arrested in demonstrations, stopped deportations of family members and strangers, sued the state of Arizona, won the right to obtain driver’s licenses and lost in-state tuition.
To Dulce Matuz, who co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition in 2009, today’s political landscape has similarities with 2010, when comprehensive immigration reform nearly won congressional approval.
That year a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, versions of which had been introduced in Congress since 2001. This year, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 with bipartisan support.
In 2010, a filibuster in the U.S. Senate killed the DREAM Act. This year, it is unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate will consider the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, or that President Donald Trump will enact it.
But Matuz also sees a key difference.
“Where we are today is not like 10 years ago,” Matuz said. “We are smarter, we are more organized, we are together.”
Matuz spoke at an event celebrating the 7th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at the state Capitol. A group of about 60 people gathered on a hot June Saturday afternoon on the grass lawn under a large shadow cast by the Arizona House of Representatives building.
DACA was announced on June 15, 2012 by President Barack Obama. It was an executive order that allowed certain immigrants under the age of 30 with no criminal record who arrived in the country as children to obtain a work permit and protection from deportation.
In Arizona, there are 24,990 people who have these benefits under DACA, according to the latest data from U.S. Citizenship and Immmigration Services. Nearly 90 percent of them reside in the Phoenix-metro area.
“Before DACA, you could go to jail much easier than you could get a job,” said Edder Diaz-Martinez, who has benefited from DACA since 2013. He was speaking to a younger crowd during the anniversary event. “It was easier to end up in jail than to get an education, or get a driver’s license.”
But the safety DACA provides to thousands is no longer available for many. That’s because the Trump administration ended the program in September of 2017. Several court challenges have kept DACA in place for people who were already granted protections, but eligible new applicants can’t benefit.
It means a younger generation of immigrants brought to the country as children won’t find the safety their older peers enjoyed.
Blanca Collazo is one of the last young immigrants who benefited from DACA. In 2017, she turned 16, the minimum age requirement for DACA eligibility. She was able to work, supplement her family’s income, get a driver’s license and is planning to attend Grand Canyon University in August.
At the anniversary event, Collazo encouraged other youth who have benefits under DACA to advocate for themselves and for those who don’t have those privileges.
“We remember the seven years of DACA, but also let’s remember those who are still undocumented. Let’s remember the families who are being separated and the children who are in cages,” she said. “Even though we have DACA, there’s still things we can do.”
Collazo works organizing other youth to push for immigration reform.
“If not us, then who?” she said.
Collazo and other young budding immigrant-rights organizers also heard from Oscar Hernadez about the obstacles they might encounter.
Hernandez has had DACA for seven years, and has lobbied and advocated for changes in immigration policy at the local and national level.
“Politicians… will tell you it can’t be done,” he said. “The best thing that we can do is come as a community, and stick together.”
Matuz also encouraged the younger crowd to stay involved. She recounted how the Arizona Dream Act Coalition sued the state of Arizona in 2012 for former Gov. Jan Brewer’s policy banning DACA recipients from obtaining driver licenses. The dreamers won the lawsuit in 2014.
“Now, we need to go for more wins,” Matuz said.
One local win for ADAC and other immigration advocacy groups is to repeal Proposition 300, a voter-approved law from 2006 that prohibits Arizona residents without lawful immigration status from in-state or resident tuition eligibility.
The repeal would make public higher education more affordable to thousands. The cost of tuition at Maricopa County Community Colleges is nearly 300 percent higher for non-residents than residents ($85 per credit hour versus $326). At the state’s public universities, tuition for non-residents costs more than double than what in-state students pay. A recent study shows about 2,000 undocumented students graduate Arizona high schools every year.
At the national level, a win would be immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, other undocumeted youth and their families.
That’s part of what the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 does. Under this law, around 2.7 million immigrants, including dreamers, DACA recipients and other immigrant groups would be on a path to permanent immigrations status, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
An estimated 65,400 immigrants in Arizona would benefit, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Phoenix is the fourth city in the country with the largest population of people (31,000) who would be covered by this legislation, after Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, according to the Center for American Progress. Mesa is also among the top 25 cities that would be affected, with an estimated 4,800 residents that could benefit.
“We are not here to be complacent. We want a clear path to citizenship,” said Eddie Chavez Calderon, a campaign organizer with AZ Jews for Justice and a DACA recipient.
Chavez called DACA a “little Band-Aid” to a larger problem.
“DACA is keeping the dream alive, but the dream has to become reality,” he said.