No ‘Dreamers’ allowed: DACA recipients still can’t work for Congress

‘My dreams, as nerdy as they sound, were to work for the U.S. government,’ one would-be staffer says

People rally Wednesday in support of the American Dream and Promise Act. Even as  lawmakers in Congress consider immigration bills like that one, DACA recipients can’t work on Capitol Hill thanks to a little-known appropriations provision.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
People rally Wednesday in support of the American Dream and Promise Act. Even as lawmakers in Congress consider immigration bills like that one, DACA recipients can’t work on Capitol Hill thanks to a little-known appropriations provision. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 5:30am

Like a lot of congressional interns, Sara had her five-year plan all mapped out. First, she’d find a staff assistant position, “then work my way up to legislative correspondent, then legislative assistant and then try to get a legislative directorship under my belt.”

She had already interviewed a few times when she found out. As a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she suspected she’d have to fill out a few extra forms before accepting a Capitol Hill job. Instead, she discovered that she was completely barred from working for the federal government, including Congress, thanks to an obscure rider attached to annual appropriations bills.  

“Besides the initial shock — OK, the next five to 10 years after college are going to look a lot different from what I expected — I was pretty disheartened that this was an issue because, as a DACA recipient, you have this work authorization and you think this solves a lot of my problems,” Sara says. “I have a Social Security number now, I can work and have a job and follow my dreams. And my dreams, as nerdy as they sound, were to work for the U.S. government and work in Congress and enact meaningful change through laws and through governance.”

Sara is not her real name. She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity since she has never publicly disclosed her immigration status and she fears online abuse.

DACA allows undocumented immigrants widely known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. as children, to apply for deportation relief if they meet certain criteria. It also allows them to file for a Social Security number, get a driver’s license, apply for federal student financial aid and get work permits. But since the 1990s, an appropriations provision has prevented federal money from being used to pay noncitizens as federal employees, with few exceptions — and DACA isn’t one of them.

Dreamers can get a taste of Congress only if they’re paid by third parties, as interns or fellows placed through groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

While Democrats have repeatedly tried to strip the provision from appropriations measures, it has — so far — always emerged unscathed from the murky annual spending bill negotiations.

But with Democrats now in control of both chambers and the White House, immigration advocates, led by a coalition of current and former DACA recipients working on the Hill, hope this will be the year things finally change.

Working the phones

Whenever immigration is in the news, the calls get worse, says Xenia Ruiz. Constituents dial their representatives to give them a piece of their minds. And often on the receiving end of all this vitriol are the interns who pick up the phone, including some Dreamers. A particularly bad day — like when the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to revoke DACA last year — will mean eight straight hours of politely listening to callers as they push for mass deportations.

That’s why Ruiz, now a naturalized U.S. citizen and working for House Assistant Speaker Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, got together with a few other formerly undocumented immigrants to found the Dreamers Congressional Staff Association in 2019.

“It’s absolutely a support group, in many ways,” Ruiz says. “As a staff association, we prioritize creating a safe space for those whose day-to-day experiences are really unique as they navigate their roles on Capitol Hill, having themselves experienced not only racial trauma, but often trauma related to their current or past immigration statuses.”

The group’s other main mission is to change the law keeping those invective-absorbing interns from getting full-time staff jobs on the Hill.

One major ally has been Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat who since 2015 has sponsored stand-alone measures to allow DACA recipients to work for Congress. The latest version, introduced earlier this month, so far has 51 co-sponsors, but not a single Republican among them.

Kirkpatrick’s aim is to expose more Republican lawmakers to Dreamers, in the belief that getting to know immigrants would make them more likely to actively support comprehensive overhauls, says her chief of staff, Abigail O’Brien. The rule has blocked her from hiring a few DACA beneficiaries, including Sara.

“There are extremely qualified and talented individuals that would be incredible assets to congressional offices that are unable to work because of minor [appropriations] language,” O’Brien says.

But exposure alone might not be enough to soften hearts hardened against seeing a migrant’s humanity. One Hill aide in the Dreamers staff association described visiting the U.S.-Mexico border on a state delegation junket.

“You’re touring these spaces with people on the ground who are talking about the various issues — like the groups who put out water for migrants — and hearing staffers say, ‘Well, it’s just like a dog: If you put it out, they’re gonna come,’” the aide says. “You have to then attend five more days of meetings with these folks.”

“You don’t have the luxury of alienating staffers [who] in a lot of cases you need to continue to maintain a decent working relationship with,” adds the aide, who asked not to be named for that reason.

Alone in the room

Laura Muñoz Lopez got her start in Congress thanks to some tipsy nuns.

It was over margaritas at Tortilla Coast. Muñoz Lopez wouldn’t have even been there if she hadn’t been the rare college senior who subscribed, and actually read, her local congressman’s newsletter. That’s how she’d heard Illinois Democrat Bill Foster was raffling off tickets for Pope Francis’ visit in 2015. “What the heck, I never win any of these things anyway,” she recalls thinking. “And then I ended up winning.”

Muñoz Lopez flew to Washington and ran into the Nuns on the Bus, a group of roving advocates sponsored by the Catholic social justice group NETWORK whom she had met earlier on their cross-country tour.

“I remember sitting in one of the booths,” Muñoz Lopez says. “And one of the nuns is like, ‘Are you familiar with NETWORK’s government relations program?’”

She wasn’t, but after learning more about the one-year lobbying gig in D.C., she decided to turn down another job offer and give it a try. 

A year later, she decided to stay. Now she works for House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar, but if it hadn’t been for finding love and getting married — making her eligible for a green card — a federal career would have been closed to her. 

When she was five, Muñoz Lopez’s family left Colombia and settled in South Carolina. She signed up for DACA when she was in college, soon after it was announced in 2012, and then started volunteering to help other Dreamers do the same. “I just never lost sight of how good it felt to help people,” she says.

Being a Dreamer on the Hill can be isolating. “When I got to D.C., there was just so many times I would be in meetings [with congressional offices], especially when I was at NETWORK, where people were talking about immigration like they had never known a DACA recipient or someone that was undocumented,” says Muñoz Lopez. “It was mostly white people sitting around talking about immigration from such a theoretical perspective.”

Of the four current and former undocumented immigrants CQ Roll Call spoke to for this story, all of them could recall a time they were the lone person of color or the only immigrant in a room while immigration was discussed on Capitol Hill. 

That raises the stakes, says Muñoz Lopez. “When an immigration group comes to the Hill, I want them to know that, as an immigrant, I know what they’re talking about, and they don’t have to share with me the most traumatic experiences of their lives within the immigration system for me to get it,” she says.

Another thing these Dreamers all shared: cautious optimism that this year, Congress will do away with the rider.

Kirkpatrick’s legislative efforts have mainly been messaging bills — even if Congress approves immigration changes like those in a bill the House passed earlier this month, it would still have to toss the rider off the annual spending legislation to let Dreamers work for Congress or federal agencies.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says she’ll try to amend the rider again this year. “I am proud to support our Dreamers, and I strongly favor repealing outdated prohibitions that prevent the federal government from employing these talented individuals,” she says. Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., did not respond to a request for comment, nor did any of the Republican ranking members on the relevant committees and subcommittees.

Whether Dreamers like Sara will be allowed to work in Congress next year will likely come down to another end-of-the-year budget negotiation between the appropriations cardinals and party leadership. It’ll require someone like Leahy or DeLauro refusing to give in, or their Republican counterparts deciding to give it up.

Whether that happens on an issue like this, which directly affects just a small number of non-voters but carries such enormous symbolic weight, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Sara won’t be waiting. After getting shoved off the Hill, her career path has run along the campaign trail, working to elect Democrats.

“It’s not like I wouldn’t be able to pivot again, but I’ve kind of embraced the work I’m doing,” she says. “And I found out that I’m good at it, so that’s a plus.”

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