Grassley: ‘Broad Support’ Needed to Pass Documented Dreamer Relief in Senate

Sep 8, 2022
4:58 PM

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, told a young constituent from India during a town hall meeting in August that relief for documented dreamers could be added to the National Defense Authorization Act currently before the Senate, but that it would need broad support. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — At a town hall last month in Corydon, Iowa, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was confronted by a young constituent about her immigration status.

“I still don’t have a guaranteed path to citizenship,” Jessica Ahluwalia told Grassley, explaining that despite migrating legally to Iowa over a decade ago at the age of 11, her future in the U.S. remains uncertain.

“Are you want they call a DACA kid?” asked Grassley. “No,” Ahluwalia said. “DACA is for people who came here illegally. I came here legally.”

A Grassley aide who attended the town hall then stepped in, reminding the senator of meetings he has had on Capitol Hill with Improve The Dream, an organization that advocates for the 200,000 legal immigrants known as “documented dreamers” who face aging out of their parent-, employer-, or education-based visa sponsorship.

Documented dreamers who age out of their immigration status —often at 21 years old, Ahluwalia’s age— face a difficult choice of self-deporting back to the country where they were born or staying in the United States undocumented.

At the August 17 town hall, Grassley referred Ahluwalia to Drew Sloan, one of his legislative aides.

On Tuesday, Latino Rebels asked Grassley about his encounter with Ahluwalia and other documented dreamers who have stopped by his office on Capitol Hill to advocate for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would provide protection from the aging out of their immigration status.

“I think the guy that asked me that was Korean,” Grassley, 89, told Latino Rebels. “So in regards to Korea… there’s some things in there that would cover people that are committed by crime and we’re trying to write something so we can eliminate some of these problems that we see in the bill.”

Latino Rebels asked Ahluwalia if she is Korean. “I’m Indian!” she laughed

Ahluwalia points to an op-ed by her fellow Iowan Kaleb Lillquist about the bipartisan Adoptee Citizenship Act, a bill Grassley has not cosponsored that would give automatic citizenship to some immigrants adopted by U.S. citizens.

“Seeing that he doesn’t understand what we’re saying makes it hard,” said Ahluwalia, “but I’m gonna continue to reach out.”

Improve The Dream has been a rare bright spot in immigration advocacy this summer in Congress. Advocates led by founder Dip Patel, an Illinois pharmacist, have flocked by the dozens to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress of both parties, pushing for legislation that would protect them from the uncertainty of aging out of their immigration status.

Two things distinguish Improve The Dream’s advocates in the eyes of Hill aides: First, they are legal immigrants with permission to be in the United States granted by temporary visas that often expire when they turn 21. Second, while documented dreamers come from all over the world, impacted immigrants rallying behind Improve The Dream’s banner tend to be from India.

“After years of meeting with undocumented advocates who are usually Latino, the issues raised by the documented dreamers who tend to be Asian-American are definitely distinct,” said a Hill aide who has met multiple times this year with Patel and the team from Improve The Dream.

In a March hearing on documented dreamers held by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, Athulya Rajakumar, a 23-year-old Texas journalist facing the prospect of self-deportation to India, gave moving testimony about her family’s immigration struggle.

After the hearing, a bipartisan group of four senators —Padilla, Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and John Cornyn (R-TX)— began meeting to discuss what, if any, immigration legislation could pass through the Congressional gridlock on the issue that has plagued attempts at reform for decades.

By July, Cornyn told Latino Rebels that the bipartisan effort in the Senate was essentially over. For many immigrant relief advocates, Cornyn’s scuttling of the immigration policy negotiations was just the latest bad faith negotiation on the topic by the senior senator from Texas.

Other immigrants —especially from the hundreds of thousands of work- and family-sponsored residents in the green card backlog community— blame Democrats. Durbin, in particular, is a top target for the ire of legal immigrants facing decades of waiting for permanent status due to seven percent caps on the amount of immigrants who can come from a given country.

Because of the high demand in the U.S. for immigrant labor from India, immigrants from that country, like Ahluwalia in Iowa, face some of the longest wait times for going through the legal process of getting a green card.

Legislation like the Eagle Act that would address the per-country caps has been introduced in the House and Senate but has failed to gain much traction in the current Congress. Ditto for larger-scale immigrant relief bills like the Renewing Immigration Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1929, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in the House in July.

For documented dreamers like Ahluwalia and other advocates with Improve The Dream, their best hope for relief this year is in the obscure amendment advocates hope to attach to the NDAA or the government funding bill expected to pass Congress in coming months.

There is a precedent for attaching immigrant relief to the defense bill. In 2019, advocates led by UndocuBlack and members of the Rhode Island delegation to Congress —most notably, Sen. Jack Reed (D)— passed the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF), a provision that allows Liberian nationals who have been living in the United States since November 20, 2014, to get green cards.

Grassley and other Republican senators have resisted adding immigrant relief provisions to other bills that have passed Congress this summer, including the CHIPS Act and Inflation Reduction Act, saying that these legislative efforts were not the right vehicle for immigrant relief.

Some Republican senators, like Roger Marshall of Kansas, tell Latino Rebels that labor shortages in their states make the need to reform the legal immigration system more urgent than ever.

While it has yet to be seen if the NDAA will again be the legislative vehicle to finally pass some form of long-sought immigrant relief through Congress, members of Improve The Dream like Ahluwalia have not given up hope.

“Sen. Grassley was nice and approachable,” said Ahluwalia. “It’s good he does town halls. I’m going to keep following up!”

For his part, Grassley told Ahluwalia at the town hall in August that he is open to supporting documented dreamers.

“If we could get some sort of bipartisan agreement on it, we could put on the omnibus/appropriations bill at the end of the year,” Grassley said. “Or it could be put on the defense bill: it could be put there, but it’s gotta have broad support to do that.”


Pablo Manríquez is the Capitol Hill correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports