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‘Dreamers’ need not apply: DACA recipients still can’t work for Congress

Aspiring staffers stuck in limbo as lawmakers go ‘round and round in this circle’

“Working on the Hill was my original plan. That’s what I wanted to continue doing,” says Edgar Vazquez.
“Working on the Hill was my original plan. That’s what I wanted to continue doing,” says Edgar Vazquez. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Edgar Vazquez came to D.C. in the summer of 2021 with a plan: complete his congressional internship and turn it into a full-time job on the Hill.

Vazquez, who grew up in the Houston area, wasn’t especially political as a kid. But it was a dizzying time in Texas for state and national politics. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and two years later, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke nearly unseated Republican Ted Cruz in one of the most closely watched Senate races of the cycle.

“There was just a lot of noise,” Vazquez said in an interview. “I had an idea of what the parties were, but I wasn’t actively involved.”

On a whim, he decided to intern for John Culberson’s campaign, as the longtime Republican congressman made his final bid for reelection. He learned the fundamentals of block-walking and phone-banking and began what would be a series of internships, culminating with one in the office of Texas GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales.

Vazquez was riding high until, about halfway through his three-month assignment, he learned his days on the Hill were numbered.

That’s because Vazquez isn’t an American citizen. He was born in Mexico and came to Texas as a child with his family. Like roughly 580,000 other young adults living in the U.S., he’s a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that the Obama administration created in 2012 via executive action.

DACA provides protection from deportation and certain other benefits for eligible young people. But it does not provide a pathway to citizenship. And, as Vazquez learned, most noncitizens, including DACA recipients, are prohibited from working for the federal government or Congress thanks to a little-known provision tucked into annual appropriations bills since before the program existed.

There are certain exceptions. DACA recipients, or Dreamers as they’re sometimes known, can work in Congress as interns or fellows if they’re paid by third parties, as Vazquez was. But no federal funds can be used to pay their salaries or stipends.

“I didn’t have an opportunity to feel frustrated or upset,” Vazquez said. “I felt constrained by the time that I was here, and I figured I had to quickly pivot and start networking, cold emailing, you know, reaching out for coffees.”

Vazquez was ultimately able to line up another job and has remained in D.C. But he’s had to temper his career aspirations based on his status.

“It was afterwards, once I found an opportunity to stay, that I felt frustrated,” Vazquez said. “Working on the Hill was my original plan. That’s what I wanted to continue doing.”

‘Round and round in this circle’

The issue is a personal one for Gonzales, who is among a small group of Republicans who support changing the rule that prohibits aspiring staffers like Vazquez from working in Congress or the federal government. 

“[Vazquez] is a great guy. I wanted to hire him, but I couldn’t because it wasn’t legal to do so,” Gonzales said in an interview.

Proposals to change the provision date back to at least 2015 but have repeatedly withered without enough bipartisan support.

“DACA recipients are essential members of our communities, they are already working legally all across the country, and it’s unacceptable that they are prohibited from working in Congress and shaping the legislation affecting them and their families,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat who has introduced legislation in the last two Congresses that would allow DACA recipients to work on the Hill. The proposal was not included in Senate spending bills advanced out of committee earlier this month.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., has led the charge in the House in recent years and revisited the issue this month by offering a pair of amendments during appropriations markups to allow federal employment for DACA recipients.

Both were narrowly rejected. A handful of GOP appropriators voted in favor of Aguilar’s amendments, but support in the Republican Conference remains weak. Republican-led challenges to the DACA program overall have threatened its existence since it launched. Court action means the program is currently closed to new applicants, and legislative efforts to codify or expand its protections have repeatedly failed.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as growing. It may actually be dwindling,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse of support among his party. The Washington Republican himself wants to see greater protections for DACA recipients.

Gonzales, another supporter of Aguilar’s push, said trust between the parties has eroded over immigration issues and would need to be slowly rebuilt for DACA changes to gain ground. 

“The sad part is, the DACA situation should have been solved years ago, and I think everyone realizes that,” Gonzales said. “But what often happens is something that makes sense gets hijacked. On the Republican side, you’ve got folks that don’t want to give up DACA unless they get border security. On the Democratic side, you’ve got folks who don’t want to give up border security unless you get DACA, and round and round in this circle we go. And the people who get hurt the most are the DACA recipients.”

‘I had to think about it all the time’

Groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and College to Congress, which placed Vazquez, have created work-arounds that allow DACA recipients to gain Hill experience.

College to Congress has placed roughly 100 interns in Congress since it was founded in 2016, all of whom come from underrepresented communities. The group covers the cost of housing and transportation, and provides a stipend, among other benefits.

Only a handful of interns have been DACA recipients, according to Morgan Rako, the nonprofit’s executive director. But the small number of Dreamers doesn’t diminish the importance of their perspective in legislating.

“It’s really just such a tragedy that high-quality, talented individuals who want to dedicate their time and make a career in public service are being targeted by their government that they want to help make better,” Rako said. 

“This is their home. This is their country. This is where they live and the only place they’ve known. And as we’re crafting federal legislation on things like immigration especially, there really is no one better to speak to that than the folks who have had to live it,” she continued.

CHCI, meanwhile, offers a nine-month program that allows fellows to work in Congress, the White House, federal agencies and government-related institutions and advocacy organizations. That’s how Daniel López landed in the D.C. office of Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse.

López, who was born in Guatemala and grew up in Michigan, said he became interested in policy largely because of his immigration status.

“I had to think about it all the time, especially during election season,” López said in an interview. “That’s when it would become very stressful.”

López knew before arriving in Congress that he wouldn’t be able to work for the federal government after his fellowship had ended, but that didn’t deter him. He aspired to a career in public policy and, like Vazquez, has been able to remain in D.C. working a series of jobs that bring him close to the Hill, even if he’s not on it. He doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

“I want to end up at a federal agency,” López said. “If I’m allowed to work in federal government, I would want to work at the Department of Labor or the Department of Education. I would say that’s one of my goals.”

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