DREAMers Taking a New Tack

If it brings real change for their families, young undocumented immigrants are willing to accept immigration reform without a path to citizenship.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 04: Erika Andiola, who recently resigned her position in the congressional office of Rep. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), speaks at a press conference held by the Dream Action Coalition on immigration reform December 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Andiola's mother, Maria Andiola, faces deportation proceedings being conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) (National Journal)

DREAMers think a new tack is in order for 2014 when it comes to immigration reform, and they're willing to break with older immigration advocates like Eliseo Medina to pursue a family-focused strategy they think will spark real change.

In a recently released letter, young undocumented immigrants like Erika Andiola say that the 2013 mantra, backed by Medina and other "old guard" reformers, of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants isn't worth it if it stands in the way of more limited legislative action that might actually offer their families some day-to-day relief.

In an interview with Fusion, Reyna Montoya, an Arizona DREAMer and one of the co-authors of the letter, said the goal should be helping families stay together.

"Congresspeople and even advocates get caught up in the D.C. world and forget what families are experiencing," she said.

The young advocates would like to see President Obama extend deferred action, which currently allows some undocumented young people to receive temporary deportation relief, to their parents, and end " secure communities."

And they're willing to go against older advocates who insist they're holding firm for legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship to get real change.

"Focus on a practical legislative solution for immediate relief for families, even if it doesn't include a special path to citizenship," they implored lawmakers in the letter. "Our families and communities need relief now, not ideological hard lines."

Cesar Vargas, a DREAMer and co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, told Fusion that the letter is intended to show politicians and observers what "the real voices are saying."

Vargas stopped short of saying older reformers, like Medina, who recently told Jorge Ramos he intended to fight for what undocumented immigrants need and not what opponents want to give, aren't "real" voices but did say Medina "talked citizenship or nothing. We cannot afford to walk away with nothing."

The letter conveys the sense of urgency among young DREAMers who had hoped and expected more action in 2013. Some would call them young and impatient, even naive to expect real change, but the DREAMers point out that it was them who successfully lobbied for the deferred action policy. DREAMers have always had their own youth-centric organizations and tactics, so it's not that they're suddenly refusing to bow to the ideas of older reformers. But a lack of progress on reform has exacerbated frustrations over the difference in strategies. As with any issue, different factions tend to get along better when progress is being made on the main issue, in this case, improving the lives of undocumented immigrants.

Montoya said she and about five or six other DREAMers, including Jose Patiño of the Dream is Now organization, authored the letter. That about half the authors live in Arizona is not accident. Montoya, who is from Mesa, was keen to point out that it is families who live in states with laws like SB1070 in place that are impacted day-to-day by the lack of movement on reform and that they are sick of waiting.

She spent much of the fall in Washington,  lobbying lawmakers for change before returning to Arizona for the holidays, where the DREAMers regrouped and developed the letter. It was both a reflection on the disappointments of 2013 and a call to action for 2014 — a bit of a New Year's resolution.

"It's so politicized," Montoya said of the reform movement, "that people forget how it's affecting people who are undocumented."

Montoya said she and her fellow DREAMers had more than 200 conversations with lawmakers, mostly Republicans, during her time in Washington, and that the lawmakers told them that they "cannot be serious about reform when we have Harry Reid" and other democratic leaders telling lawmakers that "comprehensive immigration reform is the only way."

Montoya and the DREAMers are fed up with the politics and don't particularly care whether politicians in the House see it as a Democratic or Republican issue, but they say they recognize that they need "an alternative" that might be more palatable for House Republicans.

"We need to see pieces of legislation. We cannot afford to say citizenship or nothing," she said.

Montoya said DREAMers "tried to ask" Medina and older staunch citizenship supporters about their stance. The dialogue was "very informal," she said, but "I was very vocal about saying in December, 'This is not moving forward.' Their response was, like, 'We cannot be negotiating against ourselves.'"

Montoya and Vargas don't see it as infighting, though.

"I was trying to express that it's not about negotiating, it's about having an open dialogue," she said, adding that the citizenship-only refrain is "a disconnect with what the community wants and the political power structure we live in."

"Not to impune the work the [older] advocates are doing, Vargas said, "but this [letter] is to become conscious of the issue. As we approach the election, the language is coming closer to talking points for the election. Citizenship or nothing is becoming the language for the Democrats and we're trying to prevent that and focus back on policy."

"If some people feel like there is a division," he continued, "that's because there is a division between those focusing on the issue and those focusing on the elections and politics. We're not going to tolerate the electoral games."

The DREAMers place a significant portion of the blame on the president and say he has failed to take action, like extending deferred action, that could bring real relief. And they, like the older advocates, would still like to see a path to citizenship come to fruition, but they think Obama has hurt the chances of that happening and aren't intent on holding out for it.

"President Obama is making it difficult," Vargas said. "He is damaging the prospect of citizenship."

Vargas also criticized the president for failing "to lead on stopping deportation" and said that failure was the main impetus behind the letter.

"It was essential that we did something different," Montoya said of writing the letter. She said Patiño did send the letter to Medina via email but that she hasn't heard much reaction from him or his peers.

"I think the role that they do is very important," she said of reformers like Medina. "They just see strategy differently. It's a different approach."

"This is healthy," she continued. "We're trying to provide a new different way of thinking. We're trying to do our best, and I think they're trying to do their best, so...Unity doesn't mean uniformity. We're united. We have the same goals. We want relief...We just feel as undocumented people we need something in 2014 and we cannot be waiting for the right Congress."

A spokesman for Medina said he was traveling and unavailable for interviews.

This article is published with permission from Fusion, a TV and digital network that champions a smart, diverse and inclusive America. Fusion is a partner of National Journal and The Next America. Follow the author on Twitter: @Emily_DeRuy