Mikesha Withanachchi is a 2L at American University Washington College of Law. She graduated from St. John’s University in 2022 with a B.A. in Sociology, where she engaged in local and international volunteer work aiding immigrant and low-income communities. She hopes to continue assisting immigrants throughout her legal career and broaden her professional background in public interest law.

While Congress bears the responsibility for enacting and modifying immigration laws in the United States, it remains paradoxical that new Congressional restrictions have barred some of the individuals most affected by Congress’ immigration policies from employment within the U.S. Congress. Due to restrictions by annual appropriations acts, DACA recipients and other non-U.S. citizens are barred from serving as paid federal employees or officers for Congress.[1] Amongst deliberations by policymakers over whether Congress should lift this restriction, an earlier proposal was put forth by Former-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) to broaden federal employment possibilities for immigrants. However, the proposal failed to garner sufficient support.[2]

On March 7th, 2023, Representative Pete Aguilar (D- CA) introduced the American Dream Employment Act of 2023. The bill gained three additional co-sponsors: Representative Greg Stanton (D- AZ), Representative Katie Porter (D- CA), and Representative Lizzie Fletcher (D- TX).[3] The bill has also garnered the support of multiple immigrants’ rights organizations.[4]

The American Dream Employment Act of 2023 seeks to create parity in the eligibility for employment by U.S. Congress, ensuring equal treatment for both U.S. citizens and non-citizens.[5] If passed, the bill would permit Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) recipients to be eligible to work as paid employees of Congress.[6] This bill would allow the aforementioned groups to apply and be considered for available staff, officer positions, and paid internships within Congress.[7] The bill would go into effect during the current fiscal year of 2024.[8]

In a press release, Rep. Pete Aguilar expressed his desire to expand employment opportunities for DACA recipients within Congress, given their upbringing in the United States and ongoing contributions to the country’s economy. He stated further, “. . . . [DACA recipients] serve in uniform, teach in schools, start businesses and contribute to the fabric of our communities in every conceivable way. They deserve the same opportunities as other young people, including serving their country in the federal government.”[9] Co-sponsor Rep. Greg Stanton described the current restrictions on Congress employment qualifications as “mean-spirited rules” that prevent intelligent, young DACA recipients from serving the American people and shaping legislation in the country they were raised in.[10]

As stated by the Dreamer Congressional Staff Association in a press conference, the American Dream Employment Act of 2023 would create opportunities for non-U.S. citizens who are enthusiastic about government and politics to apply their skills in public service.[11] Enacting this legislation would provide the government with an untapped pool of young talent for essential roles within Congress. The distinctive perspectives held by these immigrants would bring practical and sensible solutions to discussions in Congress concerning immigration and other important issues impacting immigrant communities, including affordable housing and workforce mobility. The lived experiences of these individuals, shared with the approximately 11.2 million immigrants living in the U.S. without lawful presence, would result in immigration policies more effectively tailored to serve the populations Congress designed these policies to help.[12]

Opponents of the bill fear that DACA recipients and other non-U.S. citizens are displacing American citizens from federal jobs, calling into question how “American” the immigrants seeking these positions are, and using that measure to assess their eligibility or understanding of U.S. citizens’ needs. However, many eligible immigrants under the American Dream Employment Act of 2023 were raised in the U.S., share its values, and advocate for the needs of both citizens and the millions of immigrants residing in this country.

The American Dream Employment Act of 2023 represents a crucial step toward rectifying the restrictions barring DACA recipients and other non-U.S. citizens from contributing their talents to Congress, despite being deeply impacted by immigration policies. With the bill’s growing support from representatives and immigrants’ rights organizations, there is optimism for a more inclusive approach to federal employment eligibility. If passed, this legislation would not only break down barriers for young immigrants in the U.S. but also enrich the perspectives within Congress, fostering more effective and empathetic policymaking for the diverse immigrant communities that play an integral role in shaping the fabric of the United States.

 

[1] See Consolidated Appropriations Act, Pub. L. No. 117-328, 136 Stat. 4459 (2023) (explaining how non-U.S. citizens cannot be employed as paid federal employees).

[2] See Hillel R. Smith, Cong. Rsch. Serv., LSB10244, Are DACA Recipients Eligible for Federal Employment? at 1 (2019) (explaining the debate amongst policymakers over whether DACA recipients should be eligible for paid federal employment); H.R. 2617, 117th Cong. § 4 (2021-2022).

[3] The Library of Congress, Text: H.R.1381 — 118th Congress (2023-2024), cong.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-bill/1381/text (last visited Jan. 7, 2023).

[4] Press Release, Rep. Pete Aguilar, Rep. Aguilar Pushes to Allow Dreamers to Work in Congress (Mar. 7, 2023), https://aguilar.house.gov/2023/03/07/rep-aguilar-pushes-to-allow-dreamers-to-work-in-congress/ (listing immigrants’ rights organizations that are supporting the American Dream Employment Act of 2023).

[5]  See American Dream Employment Act of 2023, H.R. 1381, 118th Cong. § 2 (2023).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Press Release, Rep. Pete Aguilar, Rep. Aguilar Pushes to Allow Dreamers to Work in Congress (Mar. 7, 2023), https://aguilar.house.gov/2023/03/07/rep-aguilar-pushes-to-allow-dreamers-to-work-in-congress/.

[10] See Press Release, Rep. Greg Stanton, Stanton, Aguilar Push to Allow Dreamers to Work in Congress (Mar. 7, 2023), https://stanton.house.gov/2023/3/stanton-aguilar-push-to-allow-dreamers-to-work-in-congress. 

[11] See Press Release, Rep. Pete Aguilar, Rep. Aguilar Pushes to Allow Dreamers to Work in Congress (Mar. 7, 2023), https://aguilar.house.gov/2023/03/07/rep-aguilar-pushes-to-allow-dreamers-to-work-in-congress/.

[12] Jennifer Van Hook et al., A Turning Point for the Unauthorized Immigrant Population in the United States Migration Pol’y Inst. (2023), https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/turning-point-us-unauthorized-immigrant-population.