SALT LAKE CITY — Bernardo Castro had a busy December. There were finals to take at Brigham Young University and shifts to work at Verizon Wireless. There was a home purchase to close and his sister’s birthday to celebrate.
There were prayers to say, too, for health, for safety and for his family’s American dream. Castro was brought to Utah illegally 22 years ago last month, and, unless Congress takes action on immigration soon, his time here is running out.
That’s why Castro, 26, squeezed a trip to Washington, D.C., and meetings with lawmakers and press calls into his already jam-packed schedule. He shared his past, his plans and his faith.
“I want people to know what’s at stake,” he said.
As Congress prepares to debate new protections for "Dreamers," or childhood arrivals to the United States — current protections end March 5 — it’s becoming clear that there’s even more at stake than the future of around 700,000 young people like Castro. To pass the Republican-controlled House and Senate this year, legislation may need to balance support for "Dreamers" with stricter penalties for other types of illegal immigrants, according to experts on immigration law.
“If something negative were to sneak into the bill, it could harm other (immigrants). I think 'Dreamers' are a little worried about feeling responsible for that,” said Alyssa Williams, who manages the immigration program at Catholic Community Services of Utah.
Research shows that childhood arrivals enjoy more support than refugees and other immigrants, which can be both a blessing and a curse, Castro said. As he fights for his own future in America, he's doing what he can for others at risk of deportation.
"We've been trying very hard to keep the narrative from becoming 'good immigrant' versus 'bad immigrant,'" he said.
Over the past two decades, Congress has considered various legislative solutions for undocumented childhood arrivals to the United States. Many bills enjoyed bipartisan support, but none passed.
President Barack Obama ended the immigration impasse in 2012 by creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. It enabled childhood arrivals who were in school, had a degree or had been honorably discharged from the military and had no felony convictions to apply for two-year, renewable work permits.
Even DACA's most fervent supporters knew the program was on unstable ground. Although popular, it was an easy target for any post-Obama administration that wanted it to end and vulnerable to lawsuits from conservative states.
After President Donald Trump was elected, Castro felt DACA's end was inevitable. He got his documents in order, pulling together proof of a productive, crime-free life in Utah.
"I wanted to have my documents in case immigration agents showed up at my door," he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the program's end on Sept. 5, following weeks of speculation and protests. Current permit holders whose work privileges would run out before March 5, or soon after, had a month to renew.
Policymakers from both sides of the aisle promised support for "Dreamers," expressing optimism about creating permanent protections and highlighting Trump's willingness to sign a future bill. However, there's been little progress in the past four months, and pro-immigration activists are beginning to worry about what a bill pulled together just before the March deadline will look like, Williams said.
"With health care and tax reform, the people who did a lot of the writing didn't want details released until the vote," she said.
Many fans of the Obama-era program are hoping for a "clean" DREAM Act, which would create a path to legal status for childhood arrivals without addressing other border security measures or visa programs.
It would "not include additional spending for enforcement, the building of a wall or more militarization of the border," said Sara Benitez, Latino program director for Faith in Public Life.
But this "clean DREAM" appears increasingly unrealistic, especially if Democrats have little leverage during policy debates, said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, an international Christian organization that provides outreach to illegal immigrants.
"I would be very pleased, but that's not politically realistic," he said.
A bipartisan group of senators met with White House officials on Dec. 19, addressing the administration's goals for new fencing along America's southern border and revamped asylum policies, according to Politico. Participants included Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who previously proposed a "Dreamer" bill that would prevent people with protected status from sponsoring future immigrants and require temporary visa holders to waive their right to an immigration hearing if they overstay their visa.
"We're trying to come up with the optimum result. Will it be perfect? No," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, on a Dec. 12 press call hosted by the National Immigration Forum. He said he was pursuing a bill that would pair protections for childhood arrivals with heightened border security and a stricter visa system.
Soerens said he and other pro-immigration activists are prepared to compromise. This is politics, after all. The goal will be to find a way to protect "Dreamers" without harming other people like them, he said.
"What I'm not fine with is a bill that says we'll legalize 'Dreamers' and we'll deport their parents. Or that we'll legalize 'Dreamers' and cut off the possibility of legal migration moving forward," Soerens said.
Loving the stranger
Religious leaders and groups have become some of the most vocal supporters of a clean DREAM act. They've arranged rallies, released statements and organized meetings with lawmakers to emphasize the importance of developing a fair approach to all immigrants.
"Our elected leaders should keep the humanity of all people affected by changes in our immigration system in mind when considering policy changes," Benitez said.
In this work, people of faith have had to confront prejudices within their own communities. The Bible instructs Christians to love the stranger without qualifications, but research shows believers love some strangers more than others.
Like Americans in general, faith groups are more supportive of childhood arrivals than other immigrants and refugees in need, according to Public Religion Research Institute. While more than 6 in 10 white evangelicals and three-quarters of Catholics and white mainline Protestants favor allowing childhood arrivals to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college, only around half of members of these groups oppose policies blocking refugees from entering the U.S.
These mixed reactions are driven by today's political climate, not morality or faith, said Liz Dong, one of the lead organizers of Voices of Christian Dreamers and a pro-immigration activist with World Relief.
"The church's response to the stranger should never change," said Dong, a "Dreamer" who came to the U.S. legally at age 10, but lost her status when an immigration attorney misplaced her paperwork while handling a change to her mom's work visa.
Pope Francis and other church leaders want Catholics to help anyone in need, not just those with more "acceptable" problems, Williams said.
"The Catholic Church wants people to be calling (lawmakers) on behalf of refugees, on behalf of anyone at risk of being separated from their families. These are not issues where we think one group deserves better treatment," she said.
However, as Soerens noted, there is a limit to what's possible in the political realm.
All "Dreamers" would celebrate a clean DREAM act, but this unity breaks down once negotiations start, Williams said.
"Some are desperate for anything to help themselves, while others are worried about comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
Castro, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said his faith community's history as victims of religious persecution inspires him to seek justice for vulnerable people. He said he's hoping for a "commonsense agreement" which factors in national security without penalizing immigrants who pose no threat to others.
"I understand harsher penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes, but I do have a problem with (punishing) people who have been here for a long time with no run-in with the law or who have had minor traffic violations," he said.
Future in flux
Like Castro, Soerens and Dong have been in Washington in recent weeks, meeting with members of Congress to ask for immigration action soon.
"From the meetings we've had with conservative legislators — I've been part of dozens of conversations — I think there is a desire to figure out something," Dong said.
Congress is expected to take up the immigration debate this month, and Trump promised "results" from Republican leaders in a Jan. 2 tweet criticizing Democrats' approach to DACA. For now, childhood arrivals still face an uncertain future.
Castro is trying not to let it slow him down.
He and his wife, Taby, a childhood arrival from Peru, just closed on a house in Spanish Fork, Utah. He's 18 credit hours away from a degree in business management.
Castro's not giving up on a long, full life of American dreaming for his whole family. Until that's assured, he has prayers to say.
“I want well-being not only for myself, but other people, as well. That’s been a big focus when we pray,” Castro said.