Karen Villagomez is a paralegal in Chicago, Illinois, happy that she has a job that she hopes will one day lead to a legal career. The fact that she can dream about career prospects is something that just a mere six years ago, she wouldn’t have imagined could be possible. In March 2009, Villagomez was apprehended and detained by border agents in New York’s Rochester International Airport for failing to produce valid identification when she showed up to catch her flight back home to Chicago. It was her first year at the University of Rochester and she didn’t know that Rochester sidles alongside the U.S.-Canada border, an area where the Customs and Border Protection agency has the authority to conduct interior enforcement operations. Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office intervened on her behalf and eventually helped her beat her deportation proceedings. In 2012, she applied for President Obama’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted her temporary deportation relief and work authorization.
“[DACA] has given me a sense of normalcy and a sense of belonging,” Villagomez told ThinkProgress this week. “Although I want it to be permanent, [DACA] has allowed me to work, to have an ID, and to be able to drive.” On Thursday, Durbin used Villagomez’s story to demonstrate the human cost of House-approved provisions to take away President Obama’s executive action. Another executive action, announced in November 2014, would similarly shield upwards of five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and grant work authorization.
To communicate the impact of losing these programs, Durbin has taken to the Senate floor every day the Senate has been in session this year to tell the stories of DREAMers, undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children. “I have shared the stories of more than fifty DREAMers on the Senate Floor, and it has made a real impact on my colleagues,” Durbin told ThinkProgress, explaining that he began regularly telling such stories since 2009. “At the beginning, it was the first time that the stories of undocumented Americans had been featured on the Senate floor. Now, some of my colleagues in the House and in the Senate have joined me in sharing the stories of Dreamers that they know.”
The House-approved amendments to eliminate these programs created through Obama’s executive actions are tucked into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill passed in mid-January. Current DHS funding will run out on February 27. The only proposal to fund the DHS through the end of the 2015 fiscal year is a House-approved funding bill that includes so-called “poison pill” amendments that would rescind protections issued through Obama’s executive actions on immigration. In a letter Tuesday, Senate Democrats signaled that they would only support a “clean” funding bill without those amendments and that a “series of short-term continuing resolutions to fund DHS should be off the table.” But because DHS operations won’t be entirely affected if funding runs out, Republicans haven’t felt the urgency to pass the type of bill that Senate Democrats are pushing for.
“It’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop — whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) told Politico this week. “Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”
Even if Republicans move on a modified bill that retains anti-immigrant elements, the White House has already set its standards. “Our bright line thus far has been we will veto anything that includes a rollback of the President’s executive actions on immigration,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “Short of that, I’m not going to be in a position to sort of negotiate on those pieces.”
Schultz added, “It’s unimaginable to me that Republicans would risk defunding that agency which is responsible for aviation security, which is responsible for the United States Secret Service, which is responsible for enforcement of our immigration laws. So our view is we want a year’s worth of full funding.”
For his part, Durbin is not waiting for Republicans to make minor tweaks to a funding bill, while still trying to roll back on Obama’s executive actions through lawsuits, floor votes, and even airing grievances at Loretta Lynch’s attorney general confirmation hearing.
“As more and more of the 11 million undocumented immigrants come forward, it is clear that their stories are the best way to explain the need for immigration reform,” Durbin told ThinkProgress, explaining that the House Republican-sponsored funding bill could lead to the deportation of DACA recipients like the ones in the stories he tells.
“I want the American people to understand the human cost of anti-immigrant legislation championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives,” Durbin said. “It is clear that DACA and immigration action works for America, and the stories of these DREAMers show us why.”
Recalling her detention by border officials, an experience that hasn’t quite left her, Villagomez said, “I was stuck in that in-betweenness. It was a Saturday morning and they told me that I couldn’t pay for a bond until Monday so I was taken to a jail — an actual jail. … I was treated like any other person going to jail for a crime.”
One DREAMer Durbin hasn’t talked about is Vanessa Manzi. The 27-year-old DACA recipient will be sworn into the California bar this week — becoming the state’s second undocumented immigrant to receive a law license. The California Supreme Court ruled last year that undocumented immigrants can legally practice law.
Manzi told ThinkProgress that she wanted to become a lawyer when her family fell out of status after an attorney did not submit her family’s papers on time.
“When I was exposed to other DREAMers, I knew that I could help other people like myself and others like my parents,” Manzi said. “Who better to advocate for these people than someone who has gone through the exact same situation. Living in this country undocumented is extremely difficult and the fear they experience every day, I understand every day.”
“If people understood how punitive immigration law is, there would be a lot more support for immigration reform,” Manzi said.