Immigration activists are pressuring Democrats to pass the DREAM Act, even if it means a government shutdown

“We’re going to keep going until we get it.”

Facing a line of Capitol Police, more than 200 immigration activists wearing bright green armbands climbed the steps of the US Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. They raised their fists in solidarity with young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers and began chanting in unison.

“What do we want?”

“DREAM ACT.”

“When do we want it?”

“NOW.”

“If we don’t get it?”

“SHUTDOWN.”

As police arrested the protesters one by one (including two members of Congress), thousands more across the street chanted the same slogan. Organizers estimated that 10,000 people showed up for Wednesday’s rally on Capitol Hill, one of the largest immigration rallies in Washington this year. Their demands to Congress were clear: pass the DREAM Act before the end of the year, give DREAMers a pathway to citizenship, and don’t approve money for a border wall.

And unlike Democratic lawmakers, the activists weren’t shying away from the subject of a government shutdown.

With just a few days to go to pass a federal spending bill, the majority of the government shutdown drama has so far been relegated to House Republicans. But a similar fight is brewing among Senate Democrats, six of whom have said they’ll vote no on an end-of-year spending bill unless it includes the DREAM Act, a permanent path to citizenship for the nearly 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers.

“DREAMers are important to us,” said Xiomara Santos, a policy and legislation associate with the League of United Latin Americans. “They’re unofficially US citizens already. They have the right to be here.”

Democrats actually have political leverage on the federal spending bill, and they intend to use it. They have a long list of demands to attach to the bill, and the DREAM Act is one of the biggest priorities. If Republicans hold out, Democrats could theoretically threaten a government shutdown to force their hand.

A potential shutdown is causing a lot of unease in the ranks; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he’s hopeful Democrats and Republicans can work out an immigration compromise while avoiding a shutdown, and most Democratic senators want to keep the government open. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi plan to meet with Trump on Thursday to work on a deal.

“Anyone that was here before certainly would never vote for it [the shutdown] again. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told Vox last week.

But so far, six liberal senators have committed to opposing the federal spending bill unless it contains the DREAM Act, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Corey Booker (D-NJ).

At least two senators, Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), said they would not threaten a government shutdown and hold up a spending bill over the immigration fight. Republicans need at least eight Democratic senators to keep the government open.

DREAMers and immigration activists are hoping to convince more to join the group with increased protests across the country. They held about 30 sit-ins in congressional offices this week so far, and mass numbers showed up to the US Capitol on Wednesday to make their voices heard.

There’s urgency to this fight; young unauthorized immigrants are running out of time. With the Trump administration rescinding DACA months ago, more are facing the threat of deportation every day. They don’t want a compromise or a temporary fix; they want the DREAM Act attached to the spending bill and passed by the end of the week.

If that means Democrats threaten a government shutdown, so be it, activists told Vox.

“The immigrant community is coming out. We’ve been negotiating for years,” said DREAMer and Washington activist Juan Pablo. “I want permanent protection now. … We’re going to keep going until we get it.”

Immigration activists have the attention of Democrats — and they are showing their numbers

Immigration activists have been ramping up the intensity of their actions this week, as a vote on the spending bill nears. On Wednesday, hundreds of immigrants and young DREAMers rallied on Capitol Hill, demanding a permanent fix.

Harris spoke to activists and DREAMers outside the Capitol on Wednesday, promising to hold her position and saying that Congress must take action by the end of the year.

“Let’s reject those folks who say fixing DACA is not an emergency,” she later tweeted. “For these 700,000 Dreamers who are terrified they will lose their job or their family, this is an emergency.”

Immigration activists already have a powerful ally in Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and the original author of the DREAM Act, which he introduced in 2001.

“We have to assert ourselves in the minority and make it clear that we are not going to vote for certain legislation — and our votes are needed — unless this is included as part of the package,” he told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week.

There’s a lot less daylight between the wants of activists and of Democratic senators than there was in past years. In recent years, Democrats have been moving dramatically to the left on immigration issues. As Vox’s Dara Lind writes:

Democrats have come to defer to organized immigration activists in a way they didn’t 10 years ago, or even during the early years of the Obama administration. Thanks in part to a change of strategy by major labor unions, whose success in organizing immigrant-heavy professions like the hospitality industry rather than relying on its traditional manufacturing base, this important component of the Democratic base has wholly embraced the idea of comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, the party has moved substantially to the left on the issue of immigration enforcement.

Now activists are setting their sights on Schumer, hoping to get a similar commitment from the minority leader. That will be a much more difficult task. Schumer has said he is optimistic that bipartisan immigration reform will be passed by the end of the year, but he hasn’t committed to block the spending bill over it.

Earlier this week, DREAMers were arrested at Schumer’s New York City office, as they called on him to push for a DREAM Act with no concessions on the border wall or enhanced border security. Activists said they’ve heard nothing from Schumer, beyond a staffer coming out to say they would relay the message to the minority leader. But activists say that’s not good enough. A DREAMer named Tereza Lee was on those arrested at Schumer’s office.

“He has a voice. He’s influential,” said Lee. “It’s very important that he come out to say that he will not vote on a spending bill that doesn’t include DREAM Act.”

Lee was the original inspiration for the DREAM Act, after she contacted Durbin’s office back in 2001 when she first faced threat of deportation. She’s seen the legislation come close to passing — and then fall short — so many times.

This time, however, she is hopeful.

“I’ve never seen so much support for the DREAM Act, I’ve never seen so many people knowing what the DREAM Act is,” she said. “People will be rallying very loudly with everything we have until we see some progress.”

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