Wednesday morning, Todd Schulte stood before a podium, dressed in a grey suit and orange tie, to talk about the urgent need for legislation that protects undocumented people who came to the United States as children, also known as Dreamers. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s intention to rescind an Obama-era protection for Dreamers called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, immigration advocates like Schulte have rushed to get such legislation passed.
Wednesday’s speech was hardly the first time Schulte has given such a talk. As president of the tech-backed immigration advocacy group FWD.us, he has helped lead Silicon Valley’s idealistic drive to pass immigration reform since 2013. But this time around, standing inside the Chamber of Commerce building in Washington DC, Schulte, a former Democratic political operative, knew he was pleading the case for Dreamers to a much broader—and more receptive—audience than ever before.
“There are not that many issues in life when 85 percent of the American public agrees, when 91 percent of Democrats agree, when 84 percent of Independents agree, and when 80 percent of Republicans agree,” Schulte said. “And that’s just a Fox News poll.”
Such bipartisan consensus would normally be seen as a blessing in our politically polarized times. And yet, the broader the movement grows, the more divided it becomes.
It’s true that the Trump administration’s ultimatum to Congress—legalize DACA, or else—has helped form a big tent over the heads of Dreamers. Roughly 800 business leaders signed a letter urging Congress to pass a Dream Act, which would grant Dreamers permanent residency in the United States. About 40 of those businesses went to Washington Wednesday to lobby members of Congress, and 100 of them have signed on to the newly formed Coalition for the American Dream. That group, founded with the explicit purpose of lobbying for the Dream Act, has made strange bedfellows of left-leaning tech companies and ultra-conservative groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. For Schulte, who watched the comprehensive immigration reform bill die in 2013 due to conservative squeamishness, this kind of widespread support on both sides of the aisle is a sure sign of progress.
But in the rush to pass a Dream Act before the government stops renewing DACA permits on March 6, some fear that lobbyists and conservative groups may make political concessions in order to get Republican lawmakers on board. Groups like United We Dream and the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance have emphasized the importance of a “clean” Dream Act, which protects Dreamers without funding additional border security or internal immigration enforcement. They’ve taken these demands not only to Republicans on Capitol Hill, but to Democratic elected officials, as well.
In September, activists from California Immigrant Youth Alliance interrupted a Nancy Pelosi press conference, shouting, “We are not your bargaining chip,” in response to her having announced a DACA agreement with President Trump. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed News recently reported that LULAC, a leading Hispanic organization, has lost staff recently due to the group’s decision to work with the Trump administration.
For undocumented people at the center of this fight, all the realpolitik bargaining in Washington will have personal repercussions. “We’re asking them not to implement policies that are going to go against our families,” says Juan Guzman, an organizer with United We Dream, who is, himself, undocumented. “That is the main ask: Don’t come to my house and use my information so you can go after my mom and my dad.”
That tension hasn’t gone unappreciated by conservative members of the movement. “These are the people for whom the details really do matter, and we ought to listen to their voice as they tell us in real terms the impact that various proposals would have on them,” says Neil Bradley chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce. And yet, he says, “We can’t fail to act because we’re going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
“No piece of legislation is going to be perfect,” Schulte adds. “It’s going to have things people don’t love.”
The proposals currently on the table vary in the number of undocumented people they protect and the additional immigration enforcement provisions they include. The most generous proposal, The American Hope Act, introduced by Democrat Luis Gutierrez, a representative from Illinois, would apply to some 3.5 million people who came to the United States before the age of 18 and have lived here continuously since December 31, 2016. 1 Unlike DACA, it requires no minimum educational attainment or military service. After eight years with protected status, people would automatically be enrolled for a green card.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum is the SUCCEED Act, introduced by Republican senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. It would apply only to people who were younger than 16 when they came to the United States and who have been here since June 15, 2012. They would need to either have graduated college, served in the military for three years, or been continuously employed for four years. They wouldn’t be able to sponsor family members for green cards until they, themselves, were citizens, a process that can take more than a decade. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the SUCCEED Act would cover about half as many people as the American Hope Act. It would also require Dreamers to relinquish their right to due process if they’re found to have fallen out of compliance with the bill, and require people on tourist visas to also waive their right to due process if they’ve overstayed their visas.
Schulte believes the end result will be a bill that both offers Dreamers a path to citizenship and enhances border security. FWD.us would not support a bill, he says, that includes what’s called internal enforcement, which extends well beyond the border. “We do not think that should be part of this deal,” he says.
Meanwhile, Bradley, of the Chamber of Commerce, says, “Any viable path forward, and by viable, I mean something that can get enacted, I would anticipate we would be supportive of.”
As for the Coalition for the American Dream, it would support any “permanent legislative solution” that allows Dreamers to work and live in the United States. Brian Walsh, a spokesperson for the group, declined to provide additional information on what, exactly, the details of that legislation should include. Walsh said the group’s focus is on getting one of these solutions passed before the end of this year. If Congress waits until March, hundreds of thousands of Dreamers could lose their protection before a law goes into effect.
What unites these groups is a shared desire to pass something before time runs out. And yet, for people like Guzman, it’s those details that matter. The difference between, say, the SUCCEED Act and the American Hope Act, is the difference of more than one million people being eligible for protection—or not. It’s the difference between being able to reunite with family and waiting more than a decade to do so.
Guzman says he’s heartened by the overwhelming support Dreamers have received recently. “The fact that you have the most important CEOs telling everyone, ‘You have to get this fixed,’ is positive,” he says. He only hopes that support is strong enough to withstand the kind of partisan backscratching that could risk threatening the very families this broad-based movement originally set out to protect.
1. Correction 11/17/2017 12:38 PM EST An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Gutierrez’s home state.