When Ana Haro Velez read the news on Thursday, she felt a huge wave of relief.
The U.S. House passed H.R. 6, American Dream and Promise Act, which would establish a pathway to citizenship for 2.5 million immigrants, including those like Haro Velez known as “Dreamers” who moved to the U.S. as children without proper documentation.
“I’m so happy,” said Haro Velez, who lives on Maui. She said she understands that the legislation faces a tough path in the Senate but feels like this is an important step forward. “I have faith that they will help us this time.”
Haro Velez is one of about 800,000 “Dreamers” who now are relying on temporary work permits through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
There are 558 Hawaii residents who have received DACA work permits, according to a 2017 analysis by the nonprofit policy site Governing.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who co-sponsored Thursday’s legislation, said Friday that he estimates there are between 300 and 400 DACA recipients in Hawaii.
“Fundamentally I believe that the bill is a fair and reasonable solution that balances some competing interests as best we can and that reflects our values at the end of the day,” Case said in a phone interview.
DACA recipients are a fraction of the estimated 40,000 unauthorized immigrants who call the Aloha State home, among more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
The community is at the center of a push by President Joe Biden’s administration and Democrats in Congress to reform the country’s immigration system. Biden dropped former President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the DACA program and stopped defending the public charge rule, a 2019 Trump policy that made it harder for low-income people to obtain permanent residency.
Clare Hanusz, a Hawaii immigration attorney, says that she is still waiting to see the effects of the new Democratic administration but that almost every day so far has brought good news for her clients.
“We’re just waiting kind of day by day, week by week, anticipating more positive changes that are going to tear down more barriers,” she said. “There are new people in town that don’t view intending immigrants with hostility.”
H.R. 6 was introduced by U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard from California and co-sponsored by 169 colleagues including Hawaii Reps. Case and Kai Kahele. Both voted in favor of the bill, along with 228 other Democrats and nine Republicans, which would also create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who currently have what’s called Temporary Protected Status.
On Friday, Case told Civil Beat that the pathway to citizenship created by the bill screens people for criminal records and national security risks and requires permanent residency first.
“It is a long pathway that this bill sets up but I think it’s a reasonable pathway,” he said. The measure goes next to the U.S. Senate, where its fate is uncertain in the face of Republican opposition and concerns about an influx of undocumented migrants at the southern U.S. border.
Haro Velez feels grateful to have her DACA work permit — she has friends who were denied permits and have struggled in the pandemic, unable to work legally or collect unemployment. But it hasn’t been easy.
Every two years she applies for a work permit renewal, paying a nearly $500 fee plus about $1,500 in attorney costs. That money was harder to scrape together this year after getting laid off from her travel industry job and temporarily going on unemployment.
Next month, her permit expires again. She dreams of the day when she no longer plans in two-year increments. She wants to take her son to Mexico to meet his grandparents for the first time.
She wants to buy a new car, instead of a used one to avoid scrutiny of her legal status. She wants to buy a house without fearing that she’d have to abandon it if she got deported.
Even without a house or a trip, knowing she’s no longer at risk of getting deported and getting separated from her son would be a huge mental relief.
“Just breathe,” she says when asked what she would do if she became a citizen. “Just be able to breathe.”
Haro Velez moved to Hawaii when she was a year old and doesn’t remember Mexico at all. Her cousin, Stephanie Haro Sevilla, also grew up on Maui and found out she was undocumented in middle school when she asked to go on a class trip to Washington, D.C.
“It was a big shock to me just to think that people thought I didn’t belong here when this is where I’ve been for almost my entire life,” she said. She became a “Dreamer” in 2014 at the age of 17. Last year, she got permanent residency after getting married to a U.S. citizen.
Now 23, Haro Sevilla is in her first year of law school at the University of Hawaii and wants to pursue a career in human rights and immigration law. She may have a green card now but says she still remembers the fear that authorities might knock on her door and send her back to a country she hadn’t been in since she was 3 years old.
“This affects so many opportunities for people to be able to live without fear, to finally feel like they belong in a country where they’ve lived for their entire life,” she said.
But H.R. 6 faces an uphill battle.
“I think under the current Congress it’s highly unlikely that it would pass the Senate … as a standalone,” Case said Friday, saying the surge in illegal crossings at the border hurts the measure’s chances.
The fact that the House passed the measure “is a positive development but we have to deal with the realities of a very split government and opposition, especially in the Senate.”
He thinks comprehensive immigration reform is achievable with bipartisan support, with a measure that seeks to increase legal immigration, decrease illegal immigration and address the situation of millions of undocumented immigrants.
Case said while his Hawaii constituents hold various views, in general they support a “fair and balanced approach” that values immigration while preventing further illegal immigration.
“They don’t believe that the borders should be thrown wide open and somehow our immigration laws should not be enforced,” he said.
He said he represents more Filipino-Americans than in any other congressional district in the U.S. and many have been waiting decades to reunite.
“We have many, many families in Hawaii that are divided still, where they have been waiting for literally decades to immigrate legally,” he said. “They would want a solution for immigration to be one that recognized that they have been trying to play by the rules. And I think that it’s important that everyone feel at the end of the day that the solution is fair all around.”
Still, Haro Sevilla dreams not only for citizenship for fellow “Dreamers” but also her parents and other undocumented people living in the U.S.
“There’s so much opportunity people want to pursue,” she said.
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