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‘It’s time’: As Congress debates citizenship legislation yet again, a DACA recipient grows frustrated

Javier Quiroz is a DACA recipient and essential worker who treats coronavirus patients at one of Houston’s busiest hospitals. The last time Congress passed sweeping citizenship legislation was before he was born. (Callaghan O’Hare for The Washington Post)
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Patients sometimes look up at Javier Quiroz, an acute-care nurse in one of Houston’s busiest hospitals, and ask if he is in the United States legally.

“No,” he says.

Then he tells them about the journey that has never ended. He crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at age 3 and, nearly three decades later, is among 11 million undocumented immigrants rooted inside the United States without a permanent legal claim to this country.

Quiroz is a foreigner with a Tennessee accent, a registered nurse who paid his way through college and then fought to save lives in a pandemic that nearly took his father and infected him, his wife and their baby girl.

He has watched Congress debate his future for decades, but a bill that would offer him U.S. citizenship has never reached the president’s desk.

“It’s time,” said Quiroz, 30.

How new immigration legislation would fit into an already complex system

With Congress set to return to Washington on Monday, Democratic congressional leaders say legislation establishing such pathways ranks as one of their top priorities. But progress has been stymied, both by uncertain Democratic support and Republican recalcitrance amid an influx of migrants crossing the southwest border, following the same path Quiroz once took.

President Biden has proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act — which would cover as many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants as possible — but zero Republicans have signed onto the measure. Democrats are also advancing bills that would grant citizenship to smaller groups of immigrants in case the 2022 midterm elections alter party control of Congress.

The Democrat-controlled House passed a pair of bills in March, with some GOP support: The American Dream and Promise Act, which would grant citizenship to an estimated 2.7 million people who arrived as children or have temporary permission to stay, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and a measure that would also legalize up to 1.1 million farmworkers.

But the real battle is in the Senate, where bills require a 60-vote majority to pass and Democrats would need to recruit the votes of at least 10 Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he is willing to work with Republicans but is also willing to find ways to bypass them as Democrats did with the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

“Failure is not an option,” Schumer wrote to colleagues, saying they would address immigration and a host of other measures when the recess ends Monday.

Some GOP members have met with Democrats on the issue, but others say they will not address citizenship amid an influx at the southern border. The number of migrants crossing into the United States has risen to the highest levels in at least 15 years, with more than 172,000 crossing last month.

“We cannot possibly pass any legalization legislation until we regain control of the border,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who now won’t support the bipartisan immigration bill he introduced himself this year. “I‘m asking to stop the pull factors that are leading to this surge before we even have a serious discussion about legalization.”

In the absence of new immigration laws, policy has changed with administrations. Democrats say President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies showed they can no longer wait. Six in 10 undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for a decade or more, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Under Trump, they were all subject to being deported.

“If and when you get another president like Donald Trump, you’re leaving millions of people extremely vulnerable to that person’s cruelty, as we just witnessed over the past four years,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said in an interview. “And I know as Democrats, that’s something that we absolutely don’t want to see again.”

Democrats call for big, bold action on Biden’s citizenship bill

'Push the boundaries'

Quiroz has no memory of that first border crossing around 1994, somewhere in South Texas. His family is from a small, poor town in San Luis Potosí in Mexico and “didn’t see much future for me there.”

“They heard the stories of, ‘Go to the other side. There’s a lot of possibilities over there,’ ” he said. “ ‘You can make money and give your child another future.’ ”

His earliest memories are in Nashville, his forehead pressed against a car window as a family friend drove the newly arrived family to their first roach-infested apartment. They slept on the floor and ate dinner while sitting on plastic buckets because they had no furniture.

“Really starting from scratch, from nothing,” he said.

His family arrived years after President Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that legalized 2.7 million immigrants, and Quiroz’s family hoped for the same chance to apply for residency. But the act was also supposed to secure the border and stop businesses from hiring unauthorized workers, and it did not. So just as Quiroz’s family was settling in America, President Bill Clinton signed another bill in 1996 that cracked down on unauthorized immigrants, such as speeding up deportations at the border.

So Quiroz’s family never left.

His parents had three more sons, all U.S. citizens, and worked to pay bills and send money home. His father was a bricklayer, summoned to work by early morning horns honking outside the front door. His mom cleaned houses and office buildings and sold tacos to construction crews from the family’s minivan. Soon she started what would blossom into the family business: She began selling jewelry door to door, opened a flower shop and then a boutique, and helped organize weddings and other parties. They even bought a house.

“They were doing it,” he said. “But it’s taken them years of hard work.”

But there were always painful reminders that their lives in the United States could be uprooted at any time. His mother’s father — also named Javier — died when Quiroz was a boy, but his mother could not risk returning to Mexico to say goodbye.

She saved for a down payment on a dining room set, but the furniture store refused to sell it to her on credit without U.S. identification. “She tried to tell them, ‘I have businesses. I have a home. There has to be a way,’ ” he said.

He had thought his parents’ trouble was not knowing English, a barrier he surmounted by serving as their interpreter and studying hard at school. But one night, when he was in eighth grade, his parents sat him down at the kitchen table and said: “You’re undocumented. This is what it really means.”

“’You’re not going to be able to go to college. You’re not going to be able to get a driver’s license. You’re not going to be able to do all these things,”’ he said, recalling the moment.

Quiroz graduated from high school in 2009 with no indication that he could afford college. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, and many banks wouldn’t loan them money.

“I was ashamed to tell people the truth,” he said. “I didn’t want people to think less of me.”

Despite his parents’ earlier warnings that college might be out of reach, his mother urged him to keep trying. “Push the boundaries,” she would tell him, and it became a verbal tic. He found a local community group called “Latino Achievers” that linked him to Lipscomb University in Nashville, a private Christian university that accepted him at a cost of approximately $2,000 a month.

He lived at home, worked for the family business and drove to school despite being ineligible for a driver’s license, a risk because traffic offenses are a key way immigrants are arrested and deported.

It was nerve-racking, but Quiroz said he felt he had little choice. Nursing attracted him because he saw health-care workers as “real-life heroes,” but Quiroz worried his costly education might not be a bridge to stability.

“I’ll graduate with a degree, but that doesn’t mean anything, because I’m not going to be able to work,” he said to himself. “I’ll be an undocumented adult with a degree.”

The year before he graduated, Quiroz heard that President Barack Obama planned to make an announcement.

In the university library, he watched, speechless, as the president created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that would grant reprieves from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants like him, who had arrived in the United States as children.

Quiroz could get a driver’s license, a social security number and a work permit. He could become a registered nurse.

“I remember just bawling,” he said. “My mom was right.”

He was disappointed in 2013 when House Republicans refused to take up a Senate immigration bill that would have offered citizenship to undocumented immigrants in exchange for increased enforcement. But he at least had his work permit and could renew it every two years.

A new future

DACA was the game changer everyone said it would be: Quiroz passed his nursing boards, got a job in Texas, where his wife, Haleigh, has relatives, and built a house. They had a baby, Isabelle.

“I’m extremely grateful to President Obama for it,” he said. “He put his foot in the door for us.”

Quiroz was tending to a cancer patient in 2017 on the day Trump’s administration announced they would end DACA. It was “one of the worst moments of my life,” he said.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he said. “Here I am trying to save people’s lives, and you’re trying to rescind the very program that made this possible.”

Quiroz said he immediately told his manager he might lose his work permit, and she soon discovered three more DACA recipients worked in that same unit.

Courts stopped Trump from ending the deferred-action program as the legal battles over his decision proceeded. Quiroz now works about 20 miles away from the federal courthouse where a judge could soon rule on the issue. Texas is leading the effort to terminate DACA, saying Obama unlawfully created a program that Congress should have made.

Trump had planned to end DACA entirely by 2020. Because he didn’t, Quiroz was on duty at Houston Methodist West Hospital when the pandemic slammed into the United States.

His parents caught the virus early, and his father ended up in the intensive care unit. Both survived. Texas has the third-highest number of covid-19 deaths in the nation, and Quiroz and his wife, also a nurse, tried to stop it in frenzied shifts at the hospital.

He had to explain to a Spanish-speaking grandmother why she could not breathe. He showed disbelievers X-rays of their damaged lungs so they would understand covid-19 was real. Entire families showed up at the emergency room, he said, with “mom in one room and dad in the other.”

Some immigrants were arriving at the emergency room in worse shape than other patients, and Quiroz suspected he knew why. Undocumented immigrants lack health insurance and cannot pay high medical bills, so many put off going to the hospital until they are really sick. With covid-19, that can be too late.

Quiroz and his wife tried to be careful, but they — and their baby — all caught the virus in October. They luckily recovered, but the frightening episode made him wonder why Congress would not pass a law to benefit all undocumented immigrants, including the “original dreamers,” like his parents. Their dreams had brought him to the United States.

Immigrants have mostly been left to their own devices to find a way to stay legally. His younger brother became an adult and sponsored their mother for legal residency. Quiroz could apply through his wife, a U.S. citizen, but he is afraid to leave the country — as that process requires — because U.S. officials might not approve his request to get back in.

“People are really struck when they find out that I’m undocumented,” he said, recalling the words he often hears from patients: “ ‘What do you mean you’re undocumented or illegal? That doesn’t make sense. How are you able to practice, and you’re here saving people’s lives, taking care of American citizens? … Why don’t you have a pathway to citizenship already?’ ”

He has closely followed the various pieces of citizenship legislation and felt his hope slipping as he watched House members debate the two bills that passed last month.

During the floor debate, Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) declared: “I sympathize with the dreamers, I really do. But this bill should not be considered before addressing our broken immigration system that led to this very problem. Providing amnesty to dreamers while ignoring the crisis at the border is like cleaning up spilled water before fixing the broken pipe.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), a former undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, countered that he was an example of immigrants’ promise in this country. “I sit as a member of Congress, and my vote is equal to any of your votes,” he said, pointing to Republicans. “We will not go back.”

For Quiroz, the debate sounded like a rebroadcast of years past, where people were focused on the border and ignored those who had been inside the United States for years. He did not begrudge the border crossers. They were seeking the same kind of life he found.

“I don’t know that anyone has the perfect solution to this,” he said. “I struggle to understand why they don’t see the value in us. Is it not clear enough how valuable we are to this country?”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.