When Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton was elected last November, he considered it a no-brainer that his campaign’s political director, 28-year-old Elizabeth Perez, would join his congressional staff.
Perez had spent months knocking on doors and speaking to voters across south Phoenix and Mesa. She had deep roots in the 9th District, where she’d lived since she was 4 years old.
She was knowledgeable about policy and had a track record of success working behind the scenes for the Phoenix City Council — from the installation of a new dog park to an ordinance requiring equal pay for women in the city.
But during the orientation for freshman lawmakers shortly after his election, Stanton learned that Perez, a Dreamer, was forbidden from working for a member of Congress.
“I would call that a WTF moment,” he said. “It’s mean-spirited. DACA recipients have overcome challenges. They have grit and tenacity and the skill sets needed to work on Capitol Hill. It’s not only a detriment to these folks who have public service careers closed off to them, it’s a detriment to the country.”
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With the House now under Democratic control, Stanton said he anticipated asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make a simple change to the rules. But hiring Perez to work on a congressional staff would require passing a law.
That’s because a little-known provision tucked into annual appropriations bills expressly bars most non-U.S. citizens from working for the federal government, including Dreamers.
Even congressional staffers with legal residency, including refugees, must sign an affidavit swearing they are taking steps toward full citizenship, according to the most recent appropriations bill’s language.
Like hundreds of thousands of Dreamers — young undocumented immigrants who have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — Perez has obtained a social security number, a college degree, and work authorization, but lacks a straightforward path to becoming a U.S. citizen.
“Greg said, ‘How would you feel about working for Congress? You should think about it,’” said Perez, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a toddler. “I cared about my city, so I said yes.”
“We didn’t realize how this hateful piece of an appropriations bill directly targeted a particular community,” she said. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t devastated.”
“I cried out of frustration. I felt the way I felt when I found out DACA had been rescinded. I felt like the country that I love didn’t want me. And even as I sit here now, I feel that rejection all over again. Because I know my community deserves people like them to fight for them in Congress,” added Perez, who remained in Phoenix, working for a candidate for city council.
A new calling
With Dreamers making strides in education and income in the seven years since the introduction of the DACA program in 2012, more and more ambitious young people have run into this barrier.
President Donald Trump ended DACA in 2017, and Congress has been unable to agree on a permanent solution for Dreamers since. Their fate, for now, remains tied up in the courts.
Activists point out that many Dreamers were pulled into advocacy work because of the immediate pressures that politics put on their lives. National surveys show that DACA is a strong motivator for civic engagement.
Perez, for example, originally aspired to be an urgent care nurse, but became politically engaged after the 2010 passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s so-called Show Me Your Papers law, led to immigration raids on her neighborhood car wash and Burlington Coat Factory, touching the lives of people she knew.
To lock some of the most politically animated young people in the country out of congressional work is to cheat Dreamers twice over, activists say.
“During the 2018 election undocumented youth were knocking on doors and making sure their voices were heard, talking to voters. Even though they can’t make their voices heard at the ballot box, they are continuing to fight the deportation force unleashed by this administration,” said Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director of United We Dream. “So we see this flurry of civic engagement and folks building up this leadership pipeline. Their voices are much needed in all of the policy debates around these issues going on in Congress.”
Few lawmakers have prioritized finding a legal remedy to hire them.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick introduced legislation with bipartisan support in January that would revise appropriations language and allow Dreamers to work on Capitol Hill.
The issue became a priority for Kirkpatrick after she invited Dreamers to speak at her regular working group on immigration.
“Their stories were so inspiring and so heartbreaking that I got the idea that if my colleagues across the aisle could hear these stories, I think we could accomplish comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
A surprise for many
But the rule barring DACA recipients from becoming congressional staff has survived with little fanfare. So even within the small community of high-achieving Dreamers pursuing careers in Washington, it can come as a jarring surprise.
Paul Quiñonez, who is originally from a rural town in Washington state and came with his parents to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7 years old, interned on Capitol Hill as a political science and economics student through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in 2014.
Internships compensated through third parties are still legal. But the opportunity offered through CHCI is extremely competitive — just 11 percent of applicants were placed in offices last year, according to the group’s director of programs.
Quiñonez went on to work for the 2016 re-election campaign of Democratic Sen. Patty Murray after graduating.
He received a job offer after ElectionDay to work in one of Murray’s district offices, but it was later revoked.
“We just assumed that if you’re eligible to work on the campaign side, you’re also eligible to take an official role. We didn’t realize the reality until the paperwork was right in front of us,” Quiñonez said.
He now works for the government of Seattle.
“No matter how much our careers advance locally, there is still a subset of jobs that are out of our reach, ones we’re qualified for and in some cases overqualified for. It’s incredibly frustrating,” Quiñonez said.
Angel Silva, who came with his parents from Mexico as a 1 year old, is another former CHCI intern who experienced this institutional barrier firsthand.
He interviewed with a Democratic senator’s office after his 2017 internship in the House, hoping to secure the promotion to a full-time position.
“After my interview, they were supposed to call me at the end of the day about next steps. I got the call and thought, ‘Oh great, I’ll learn what my next steps are.’ That’s when a staffer said there is this prohibition that bars DACA recipients from working at the federal level. I couldn’t even work for [the Federal Housing Authority] or the forest service,” Silva said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a glass ceiling. The way I see it is if you’re on train tracks and there’s this series of switches, for folks like myself, you have no other choice but to reroute your life.”
Silva now works for the city of Baltimore.
Where it hurts
When the White House announced its DACA rescission in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that it had “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
But no Republican lawmakers have as yet publicly opposed Kirkpatrick’s bill to open up congressional staff positions to Dreamers.
Quiñonez and Silva pointed out that barring DACA recipients from congressional work hurts staff diversity.
A majority of DACA recipients were born in Mexico or Central America. They are more likely to speak Spanish, be people of color, and come from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background than a typical staffer, said Valeria Sandoval, president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association and a legislative correspondent for Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the last two Congresses, some steps in the right direction around investments in intern pay,” but there are more gains to be made, Sandoval said.
Fernanda Herrera, who interned on Capitol Hill in 2016 when she was an undergraduate student at an Alabama university, said “diversity is pivotal to the legislative process” in multifaceted ways.
Growing up undocumented — she came with her parents to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old — Herrera lacked insurance until she obtained it through her university, giving her a perspective on health care issues underrepresented on Capitol Hill.
“I still had to get my vaccines to go to school, and I still went to the doctor when I was sick, but we always went to urgent care,” said Herrera, now a law student in Chicago.
“Being undocumented affects every area of your life. It’s not just an immigration issue. It spills into these other issues. And when you have this type of status [DACA], you can empathize.”
DACA recipients working for members of Congress could also help lawmakers better represent their immigrant constituencies by demystifying constituent services and dispelling some of the anxiety undocumented immigrants can experience about getting in contact with the government.
“When I was an intern, I received a call from a constituent who only spoke Spanish and wanted to learn about the tearing down of a vacant lot. She didn’t know who else to call, and somebody gave her our number. There was hesitancy in her voice,” Silva recalled.
“Having folks on Capitol Hill who understand those cultural issues affecting undocumented populations is important. Because when I heard that woman’s voice, I heard my parents’ voices.”