People who call themselves Dreamers, protest in front of the Senate side of the US Capitol to urge Congress in passing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, on December 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images
By Maya Rhodan
December 15, 2017

Immigration advocacy groups are pressuring Congress to protect immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children before the year ends.

As legislative days slowly run out before the winter break, immigrant rights and progressive groups are demanding that lawmakers pass legislation to protect the so-called Dreamers, who had been shielded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until President Trump began winding it down in September.

While there is bipartisan support for a legislative fix for Dreamers — though there are some real differences in opinion on what a solution should look like — immigrant advocacy groups are focusing their fire on Democrats because they are considered allies of the immigrant community.

Ben Wikler, the Washington Director of Moveon.org, a progressive advocacy group, said Thursday morning that if Democrats do not act to protect immigrants this month they will be “scorched by a grassroots uprising hot enough to boil snow.” He added, “The Dreamer deadline is December. No excuses.”

Since the Trump Administration first declared that the Obama-era program would begin winding down in September, the official line has been that Congress has until March 5 — when the protections officially end — to put forth a legislative solution. “There is no crisis. There is no emergency. The president has given us until March to address it,” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said recently.

But in reality, immigrants have already been affected the program’s end.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress estimates 122 people who have benefited from DACA, which allows them to work, go to school, and live in the U.S. without fear of deportation, lose those protections every day. After March 5, that number is estimated to jump to 1,000 people per day, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, one of the fiercest immigration advocates in the Congress, said Wednesday that around 12,000 people have already lost their status as a result of the changes implemented by President Trump. There have also been reports of DACA beneficiaries being detained by federal immigration authorities. And even if Congress does pass a legislative solution for DACA, the National Immigration Forum and the Niskanen Center estimate that it could take at least seven months to implement it.

“We cannot wait until March,” Gutiérrez said in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday. “The DREAM Act and the protections of the DACA program are not light switches we can turn on and off.”

Immigrant groups have been upping the pressure on Congress since relief under DACA ended, including a massive show of force in November when immigrant rights advocates stormed a Senate office building and marched to the front of the Capitol. Last week, thousands rallied at the Capitol demanding a legislative fix for the nearly 800,000 immigrants who have benefited from the program. Around 200 people were arrested during that action. A group of around 150 immigrants from the black and Asian/Pacific Islander communities also delivered petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures calling for the passage of the Dream Act, bipartisan legislation that would offer DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship.

This week, groups began projecting the stories of immigrants on a 22-by-13 foot jumbotron that faces the Capitol building. And on Wednesday, groups opened a pop-up headquarters on the Mall from which advocates will work and continue to pressure Congress to act for the next two weeks. “The immigrant rights community has done everything,” says Denea Joseph, a 23-year-old DACA recipient who participated in recent actions on the Hill. “If this isn’t enough of an indication of how much people need this as a condition of their own survival, I’m not sure what it will take.”

There are two major legislative hurdles facing Congress before lawmakers leave town. Yet while the tax bill is likely to pass both chambers along party lines, Republicans may need the support from their colleagues across the aisle in order to pass a spending package. That could give Democrats some leverage to request that some of their demands be met in exchange for votes. If Republicans are able to pass the bill along party lines that would extinguish Democrat’s chances of forcing their colleagues hands.

For their part, Democrats have a substantial list of priorities they believe should be included in the spending deal including money to fight the opioid crisis, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, disaster relief, and passage of the Dream Act.

Some Democratic lawmakers have said they will not vote for a spending bill that does not include DACA language. At least one Republican, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, has also said he will not vote for the spending legislation if there is no DACA fix. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi squashed the idea that the whole caucus was on board at a press conference last week. “Democrats are not willing to shut government down,” she said.

But the California Democrat did say that Democrats willing to stay in Washington until there is a fix for Dreamers. Other lawmakers agree. “I am prepared to be engaged until the very end,” says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who sits on the House Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee.

Republican leaders want spending bill and the legislative fix for DACA will be separate, but if something is not done before the end of the year, some immigration advocates worry nothing will happen.

“We’re increasingly convinced that if we don’t enact the Dream Act by the end of the year, it’s not going to happen and that any spending package that emerges heading into the rest of the fiscal year will include funds that could be used to deport Dreamers,” Frank Sharry, an immigration advocate and the executive director of America’s Voice said last week.

Jonathan Jayes, a DACA recipient and a co-founder of the UndocuBlack Network, which advocates for undocumented black people, says life without protection for Dreamers will be tough. His DACA expires in 2019. “Whether or not we pass the Dream Act, folks will continue to fight, continue to survive and find a way to thrive,” Jayes says. “But I know that our livelihood and existence in this country is going to continue to be difficult, as it is now.”

Write to Maya Rhodan at maya.rhodan@time.com.

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