WASHINGTON — When Li was seven years old, he left Mexico to reunite with his family in New Jersey. Seventeen years later, holding a temporary visa through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he walked for two weeks to send a message to Congress — pass legislation that will grant him and 700,000 other “dreamers” permanent residency.
Li is one of 11 people who marched more than 250 miles from New York to protest Washington’s inaction on “dreamers,” or undocumented youths brought into the U.S. as children. President Donald Trump ended the DACA program, but two federal court rulings have delayed the end March 5 end of the program. The Supreme Court this week denied a Trump administration request to rule on the matter.
The number of walkers symbolizes the 11 million undocumented people currently residing in the U.S., Li said. DACA recipients make up only 5 percent of the undocumented community.
Li said he joined the rally — formally called the Seed Project and organized by the Cosecha Movement, a nonviolent group calling for immigrant protection — to protest against an administration that has consistently fought to “ship” him back home.
“When [Hurricane] Sandy came through Jersey, I helped rebuild my hometown,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody with a Trump hat. And now [Trump] is trying to say I don’t belong here.”
The protesters ended their march near the Washington Monument at the heart of D.C., just over a mile away from the Capitol and across the street from the White House.
The Supreme Court ruling effectively gave dreamers temporary amnesty beyond the date Trump had set for DACA to expire. Now, nearly 700,000 DACA recipients may apply for renewals of their work permits, but the administration will not be required to accept new applications.
But the ruling also took some of the deadline pressure off of Congress to act on the issues.
The Republicans have been advocating legislation to protect dreamers while funding more border security, including billions for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
However, Democrats slammed every bill that came their way with that tradeoff. In a record eight-hour filibuster-style speech on the House floor in early February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi read multiple dreamers’ personal stories and cited Bible passages to ensure activists and immigrants alike that Democrats are fighting for dreamers’ safety.
Inaction on the Democrats’ part, though, has angered pro-immigration Americans, fueling more rallies nationwide.
“I did not walk alone, I walked with a community,” said Haydi, a 20-year-old dreamer from the Honduras, who joined the 15-day march from New York to D.C. “To my friends and my family members who are undocumented, it’s time to come out of the shadow. Do not let them win. Do not let them tell you how much you’re worth.”
Haydi and Li declined to allow the use of their last names to protect them from possible future deportation.
“Maybe the delay might give us a chance to regroup, get in motion and calm down,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “It’s pretty clear to me that the only deal other than a punt is going to be border wall for DACA.”
Graham, one of the few Republican senators putting in an effort to work with Democrats on a fix for DACA, introduced an immigration bill with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., which the White House called “dead on arrival.”
Trump has been vocal about only signing a bill that aligns with the immigration package he proposed during his State of the Union address. His framework suggests “four pillars” on immigration, which include a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million dreamers, a $25 billion investment on border security and the wall, an end to the visa lottery and the elimination of family-based migration.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said dreamer protection will only be possible if the president backs off his “aggressive rhetoric and intense lobbying.” He added that senators from both parties are unlikely to cooperate if Trump is not willing to hear out immigration reform deals that veer off the White House framework.
“As long as the president and the secretary of homeland security are … going to campaign really hard and personally lobby against any bill that is less than the four pillars the president is looking for, I’m not optimistic we’ll get something done,” Coons said.
In the meantime, 24-year-old dreamer Li said he challenges lawmakers to listen to the undocumented community and fight for their protection.
“When the Trump administration targets families, they’re targeting my home,” Li said.