WASHINGTON - Undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients and immigrant rights advocates on Wednesday officially opened Dream Act Central, a tent space on Washington's National Mall that will serve as headquarters for a final push this year to urge Congress to pass legislation replacing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
More than 900 immigrant youths and their families are scheduled to stop at the temporary headquarters in the next two weeks to share their stories and visit lawmakers in Congress.
WATCH: DreamActTron and Dream Central: The Last Push for DACA in 2017
In front of the tent, a large-screen television has been erected facing Capitol Hill, showing stories of young undocumented immigrants, known informally as Dreamers. The term is based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — that would have provided residence and employment protections for young immigrants similar to those in DACA.
"I'm going to be here every day," Nestor Ruiz told VOA.
Ruiz immigrated to the United States along with his mother and siblings when he was 5. "This is my home. I don't know anywhere else," he said.
Protection for young immigrants
Ruiz is a beneficiary of DACA, an administrative program begun during the administration of former President Barack Obama. The program protected certain undocumented immigrant youths from deportation and granted them work permits for renewable two-year periods. In September, President Donald Trump ended DACA. Permits will start to phase out in March 2018. Ruiz's DACA permit is valid until June 2019.
"We have a huge screen behind our Congress. Basically, the goal is to get immigrant youth across the country who can't make it to D.C. to be able to share their story, to share a picture of why they need a clean DREAM Act now," he said.
Organizers from United We Dream, the advocacy group behind Dream Act Central and the television display, said, "Anytime [House Speaker] Paul Ryan looks out the window, he'll see the faces of immigrant youth who would be deported unless Congress passes the DREAM Act this year."
The 22-foot-by-13-foot screen, dubbed the "DreamActTron," will display 24-hour-a-day video and pictures of hundreds of DACA recipients. It will stay on for the next two weeks. The goal, advocates say, is to get DACA replacement legislation linked to the spending bill that is scheduled for a vote on December 22.
Some Democrats have remained firm in linking the spending legislation to a measure that would allow nearly 800,000 DACA immigrants to continue to work and study in the United States.
Speaking Wednesday at Dream Act Central, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said he wished he could "tell you that we're totally confident we can get it done I can't say that. I don't want to mislead you.
"I'll tell you this: You can count on me to give a total commitment to use every minute of every day to move us to the moment where the DREAM Act becomes the law of the land."
But Republican lawmakers are not in a hurry.
"There is no emergency. The president has given us until March to address it," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday on ABC's This Week program. "I don't think Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a nonemergency that we can address anytime between now and March."
'We are here to stay'
Greisa Martinez, a DACA recipient and United We Dream advocacy director, said that with Dream Act Central, immigrant youth are declaring, "We are here, and we are here to stay."
Martinez is one of the 1 million young immigrants who would qualify for protection under a new DREAM Act. "I'm unafraid, and I'm here to stay. … I've been fighting for this for the past 10 years," she said.
Martinez is from Hidalgo, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. with her family at an early age. She grew up in Dallas, Texas.
Dream Act Central, she said, is an idea that comes from the "hearts of people" who want to make sure that lawmakers and their staffs can't miss the fact "that we are holding space, and that we're not going anywhere."