Democrats And Longtime Immigration Advocates To DREAMers: Not So Fast On Dropping Citizenship

DREAMers say relief from deportation is more important than citizenship in the short-term as the fight for immigration reform heats up. Democrats and longtime advocates pushed back and cautioned the need for a wait and see approach.

Longtime immigration activists and Democratic lawmakers argued Friday that any immigration proposal must include citizenship guarantees, pushing back as prominent DREAMer advocates this week urged support for immediate deportation relief, even if it requires compromise on citizenship.

A group of more than 80 DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children, released Thursday a letter stating that "citizenship or nothing" is not a viable strategy.

But Democrats and older activists argue that because Republicans have not yet released their anticipated immigration "principles," a wait-and-see approach to the citizenship issue is necessary.

Eliseo Medina, an activist for workers' rights and the immigration issue for nearly half a century, believes accepting less than full citizenship is a dangerous strategy.

"One thing I know is unless you fight for it, you are never going to get it," Medina told BuzzFeed.

Medina drew the attention of President Obama last year during a protracted hunger strike to increase awareness for immigration reform. Recent comments he made on the citizenship issue to Univision sparked the letter this week from the younger activists.

"I am absolutely convinced for immigrants to have the same rights as anybody else is fundamental to our conditions as citizens and human beings," he said. "I'm absolutely opposed to anything that says people are going to be second-class citizens.

Medina joked that he has been an advocate longer than DREAMers have been alive, before turning serious and saying that the oldest trick in the book is divide and conquer.

"We can't afford to be divided," he said. "At end of the day I don't think anyone disagrees that we need to be first-class citizens. Now the question is how do you get there? What is the process for getting there? Not should you get there. The conversation with Republicans is just beginning."

Lawmakers have made it clear that they are not completely comfortable with, nor do they support, any policy that gives legalization but not citizenship to the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

"Not to provoke a fight, but I'm not going to be asked to do something I don't believe in and something that is expedient politically," Rep. Raul Grijalva told BuzzFeed, saying "old-timers" like him view this as a race and civil rights issue.

He said he understands the frustration of DREAMers, particularly those in Arizona, where deportations and detention are realities for family members and friends, but believes there is little to gain in the short-term by presenting the House Republicans with a deep division in the movement.

"Second-class status — we have a record historically — has never worked out for second-class citizens and society as a whole," he said. "I, for one, only speaking for myself, that is a bill I can't swallow."

When asked by BuzzFeed earlier this week about Republicans possibly seeking to "split the baby" and give DREAMers citizenship but not others, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) balked at the idea.

"We need a system that works, not a patchwork system that will have us in five or ten years doing this same thing again because we didn't fix it all," he said. "And I think everyone understands that you're not going to get this right if you leave a whole bunch of parts of a broken machine without being fixed."

A recent dust-up between a prominent DREAMer and Becerra shows division exists — even among groups whose aims are largely aligned.

Cesar Vargas, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition and National Activists for the DREAM Act, wrote a recent op-ed in The Hill emphasizing the community's desire for deportation relief. Vargas said Democrats like Becerra win political points by blaming the GOP for killing the prospect of immigration reform, while advocating for a "citizenship or nothing" approach. In a statement to the paper, Becerra's office praised Vargas' work, but said Vargas attributed quotes to Becerra that were not accurate.

Other Democrats like Rep. Luis Gutiérrez said they would not say what they are for or against until Republicans show their hand and unveil a policy proposal.

"I haven't said 'yes' to anything or 'no' to anything because we are not at that point, yet," he said in a statement to BuzzFeed. "Republicans are moving closer to putting concrete proposals on the table and I am anxious to see them and I think we have a real chance of passing significant reform this year."

But he did leave daylight for supporting something close to what DREAMer advocates have outlined, picturing what kitchen table conversations between the young immigrants and their parents looks like, and where that can lead policy-wise.

"Some DREAMers themselves have said as long as their parents are protected from deportation, they can wait until they are citizens and can petition for permanent status and citizenship for their parents down the road. That is clearly not ideal, but is much better than what we have now," he concluded in the statement.

David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyer's Association, doesn't like the DREAMers' approach — it's a basic rule of negotiation that you don't start by talking about what you're willing to concede, he said. "But beyond that, citizenship is the heart of this whole deal."

"Beyond the question of creating a European-like second class in this country, citizenship has national security implications," he said. "It is the primary method by which immigrants can swear allegiance to America and become officially part of the American family. Do we really want to take that choice away from people?"

DREAMers are less receptive to that strategy — they say immigration has been argued for decades already.

"What we're saying is this year we need our first win," Cesar Vargas said, adding that legalization is the current battle and citizenship will follow soon after. "People like David Leopold erroneously assume this year is going to be the end of the fight."

Erika Andiola, a prominent DREAMer who will appear on Univision's Al Punto Sunday as a counterpoint to Medina's comments about citizenship, said she was once told by a Democratic lawmaker that the best immigration reform law would not be passed until Democrats control of the House again, and that even if 2 million more people were deported everyone would just have to accept it, waiting for the best end result.

Vargas said he rejects that kind of strategy and isn't worried about the appearance of a rift. Noting that one DREAMer recently shared a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that they say describes their current mood: "Unity has never meant uniformity."

The position adopted by the coalition of DREAMers that released Thursday's letter is also, as some point out, not the definitive perspective of young undocumented immigrants. Groups like United We Dream have pushed hard for citizenship to be included in immigration proposals.

And longtime activists and lawmakers view the current situation as an opportunity to finish the fight.

Grijalva invoked comments Andiola made to BuzzFeed previously about there being many ways to define citizenship.

"There are many ways to define citizenship, but one way you don't define it is by saying certain groups don't have access to it," he said.

Medina says he can feel how close the country is to meaningful reform of the country's broken immigration laws.

"Gosh, we've been working on immigration for 20 years now," he said. "This is the closest we have come. But close doesn't count — we have to get it done. Republicans have accepted legalization and are just arguing citizenship, that's a huge move forward from 2013. But when you have momentum, you keep pushing, you don't give up."