WASHINGTON – They ditched school and marched to Capitol Hill en masse, then filled four floors of balconies in the vast atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Silent at first, fists raised in the air, they soon erupted into bellowing chants that echoed through the massive marble-clad room.
"Dream Act. Dream Act."
"Si se puede. Si se puede."
The demonstration Thursday involving high school and college students from the Washington, D.C., region and beyond was the latest attempt by undocumented immigrants and their advocates to keep Congress focused on their plight.
In September, President Trump announced that he would kill the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants work permits and deportation protection to nearly 700,000 illegal immigrants brought here as children.
If Congress can't pass legislation to replace the program, work permits will begin expiring in March.
Competing bills have been proposed to offer DACA recipients a path to citizenship, and a group of Republican lawmakers held a news conference Thursday to urge action on that legislation this year. But the Republican leadership – currently consumed with plans to cut taxes – has said no vote is likely before January.
"It's been two months since DACA has been rescinded, and we have no solution yet," said Bruna Bouhid, communications manager for United We Dream, the organization that helped plan Thursday's protest. "Immigrant youth are honestly fed up, and they are tired of waiting."
Students wore orange shirts that said "Clean Dream Act," a reference to legislation that would offer a path to citizenship without adding tough new anti-immigration measures. They came from local high schools and colleges.
Groups also traveled from states as far as Washington and Arkansas. Kristina Saccone, a spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools, said the protest was not a sanctioned school event, and students who participated received unexcused early dismissals.
A U.S. Capitol Police officer used a megaphone to warn the crowd that it is illegal to demonstrate in the building.
"Stop chanting if you do not intend to be arrested," the officer said.
Most people became quiet and raised their fists in the air, but a handful of protesters continued their refrain.
Eva Malecki, a spokesperson for U.S. Capitol Police, said 15 people were arrested, all of them were adults.
Martin Martinez, a 24 year-old DACA recipient from Spokane, Washington, said he came to Capitol Hill to fight for his future. He immigrated from Mexico with his family when he was 8, and now attends college and works as a field organizer for United We Dream.
"I consider this country my country," Martinez said. "DACA gave me the opportunity to feel safe and provide for myself and my family. That power that I have been given to help myself and my community is at stake."
Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) stood with some of his staff in the corner of the Hart Senate Building watching the protest unfold early Thursday afternoon. He said it was a powerful display, and that he wants to vote for a clean Dream Act as soon as possible.
"We need to just get Ryan to put something on the floor so we can vote on it," Ellison said, a reference to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
On Wednesday, Kirstjen Nielsen, President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security was asked about DACA recipients during her confirmation hearing.
Nielsen said participants in the program would not be an enforcement priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement if Congress fails to act, an assurance that drew criticism from anti-immigration groups on social media.
She also told Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), one of the administration's fiercest critics, that the government would not use personal information it has compiled through the program to track down individuals whose DACA permits expire and deport them.
No matter. The young protesters who came to the Senate a day later said they would not stop demonstrating until Congress passed firm legislation.
As they exited the Hart building Thursday, again with their fists raised, they chanted once again.
"Undocumented," they yelled. "Unafraid."