On March 18, the United States House of Representatives passed legislation which would provide a legal pathway to citizenship to around four million undocumented residents who are currently protected by the DACA program, as well as around one million undocumented agricultural workers.
The bill marked the first step in the Biden administration’s ambitious plan to overhaul the current immigration status quo and is still awaiting a vote by the Senate. Many members of the Duke community have advocated for such reform in the past and now look towards the future with a degree of optimism.
“It was very inspiring,” said senior Salvador Chavero Arellano, a DACA recipient.
However, Chavero was not surprised by the House vote and noted that the fight is not over, particularly in the Senate.
“In the past few years, I’ve seen the House pass many versions of the Dream Act, but it’s always stalled up in the Senate,” Chavero said.
Chavero has lobbied in Washington, D.C. for the past two summers and said that the pending Senate vote seems a bit of a wild card due to the Senate being evenly split by party. As he got to know various congressmen and congresswomen, he gained a greater understanding of how this sort of vote may play out.
“I’ve gotten to know that many things just have to line up very well politically in order for things to happen,” he said.
If the bill were to pass, Chavero’s path to citizenship “would be pretty much sped up,” he said. He would be able to qualify for automatic permanent residency upon graduating from a four-year institution such as Duke.
“I can’t get my hopes up too high because there’s been many times that there’s been so many opportunities for Dreamers to be legalized, even during the Obama administration,” he said.
Although his DACA status has afforded some degree of stability, Chavero looks forward to not having to reapply for its conditional permanent residency every two years. He also hopes that the potential changes to the system would allow him to visit his family in Mexico, whom he has not seen in some time.
“We can’t leave the country unless we ask for permission, which is what it is, but it’s just ironic,” Arellano said.
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Ana Ramirez, Trinity ’20 and a DACA recipient, agreed that reform appears possible but that the fight is not over.
“I think the House passing this is a testament to the hard work and leadership of immigrant activists across the nation,” Ramirez said. “It shows just how important elections are, for starters. I also believe it’s a great symbol of hope for young immigrants”
Still, Ramirez recognized that similar legislation is passed by the House almost every year, with the text of this year’s bill being essentially identical to one from 2019.
“We’ve been here before, I personally don’t take it as a huge accomplishment until it’s passed by the Senate and signed into law,” Ramirez said.
In the meantime, she is cautiously optimistic about the future but believes the pressure for change needs to continue.
“Always worrying about what will or won’t happen next, especially during the Trump administration was pretty tiresome,” Ramirez said. “This is a good first step.”
Ramirez co-founded Define American, Duke’s student immigrant advocacy group, during her time as an undergraduate. She believes that citizenship would afford her fellow DACA students a more holistic Duke experience without the worries of a constantly expiring residency permit.
“It would be awesome to go study abroad, just little things like that,” she said.
Chris Simmons, associate vice president for government relations, hopes that the Senate passes the bill sooner rather than later.
“Duke is 100 percent behind it. It’s something we’ve worked hard on for a number of years,” Simmons said.
He thinks that what remains is for some of the more controversial details to be sorted out by Senators but is optimistic this will occur.
“Whenever we talk to members of Congress—and when I say we, me, the president, people that are representing the institution—immigration is one of our very top issues,” Simmons said.
Many Duke students and employees currently hold DACA status. “We’ve provided resources to those employees and students, we’ve given them referrals for legal aid and we’ve been supportive of them financially for the students who are enrolled,” Simmons said.
Simmons cited recent statements by President Vincent Price alongside Governor Roy Cooper on a panel hosted by the American Business Immigration Coalition, further emphasizing Duke’s mission to fully include all members of its community, regardless of documentation.
“One of our core values is to protect the rights of our students and employees,” Simmons said. “This includes ensuring equitable access to available resources. If they’re in this citizenship status limbo, it’s hard for them to have access to those things.”