Opinion | Congress could act on immigration and dreamers this year
The peril to both sides stems from a careless promise made by Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the likely incoming speaker of the House. He pledged that on his watch, no “amnesty” bill would come to the floor.
For the “dreamers” who have waited decades for congressional action to give them a chance at citizenship, and the Democrats who support them, McCarthy’s pledge means continuing to wait until at least 2025. This would be terrible for the dreamers — and bad for the rest of us, too.
Just as sincerely, Republicans want to address security along the southern border. For those who want to do something about it — as opposed to merely talking about it — McCarthy’s promise also means a two-year wait. Joe Biden, who will be president until 2025, will not sign an all-enforcement border bill. (If incoming Republicans think they can force such a bill on him by parliamentary means, they should ask McCarthy how successful he was at repealing Obamacare.)
I am an independent who thinks both the Republicans and the Democrats are basically right. This country needs to better secure its southern border and enforce its immigration laws. The current situation on the border helps no one except “coyotes” whose profit helps to drive it. We should also welcome to the American family immigrants who have lived here for decades and led productive lives, particularly those who arrived as young children.
Nine years ago, I helped start a scholarship fund for dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children. Among the 8,750 who have won our scholarships, the average student came here as a 4-year-old. Most of them (the DACA recipients) had proved to the Department of Homeland Security that they had no serious criminal convictions. But unlike their high school classmates, when it came time for college, they could receive no federal grants or loans for tuition. With little money of their own, most of them had been in effect barred from college.
All of us who started TheDream.us believed the opportunity to attend college should be good for these students — and great, as well, for the rest of us. The dreamers could get a good education and pour into careers where we desperately need them. And their burning motivation would make them excellent nurses and teachers, doctors and lawyers, and businesspeople.
As rather old-fashioned Americans, we also thought these young people were being treated cruelly. If you are brought to the United States by your parents as a baby, there is nothing you can do to become a citizen. Nothing. Two dreamers have won Rhodes scholarships and they remain undocumented. More than 200 are doctors or medical students, but not citizens.
In poll after poll, 70 to 75 percent of American voters favor giving such immigrants the chance to stay here, study and work — and ultimately become citizens.
Our country needs the dreamers. We desperately need nurses; since 2005, more than 180 rural hospitals have closed. Among our scholars, the No. 1 major is nursing and health care. Education majors make up another large group, and the United States also desperately needs teachers.
Another important employer in need of help is the Army, which has missed its recruiting goals this past fiscal year by 25 percent — even after offering citizens $50,000 to enlist. Why not allow young immigrants, educated since first grade in American schools, to enlist as a path to citizenship (after all the background checks anyone wants). The military would fill its ranks with willing and able young people who love this country.
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Those who pay attention to the plight of the dreamers know that, in 2012, President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to give them a small head start. Those who came to the United States as young children, had no criminal convictions and met certain other criteria got two years freedom from deportation, as well as a work permit and a Social Security number, which had to be renewed every two years. They paid $495 to apply for or renew DACA, but then they could work. They still received no federal college aid or loans or other such benefits.
It’s hard to quickly name an equally successful federal program that cost so little. More than 800,000 DACA recipients went to work and began to pay what would, over a lifetime, amount to billions of dollars in taxes.
Yet DACA is in legal jeopardy. As recipients were enjoying their minimal benefits, Texas’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, spent his taxpayers’ money on a lawsuit aiming to end the program — even though Texas voters favor it 2 to 1, according to two University of Texas polls. Judge Andrew Hanen, a federal judge known for his anti-immigration sentiment, responded with a finding that DACA had been unlawfully adopted.
The ultraconservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has endorsed Hanen’s reasoning, and the lawsuit will be referred to the Supreme Court. In 2020, the justices unexpectedly saved DACA from an unrelated legal attack, but the court is different since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett.
Hanen ruled that existing DACA recipients could keep their status and renew it “until a further order of this court” or others. But by his order, no new applications can be approved. President Donald Trump had already banned new DACA approvals in September 2017. When Biden reopened the program in January 2021, much of the federal government was still shut down by covid. Of about 80,000 young people who applied for DACA status, only about 5,000 were approved. Judge Hanen’s order seven months later stopped the program in its tracks.
This means that the vast majority of DACA-eligible students who turned 15 in 2017 or later cannot get a work permit. They can’t get a job at Starbucks or Google or anywhere else. Any employer in the United States that tries to hire them is committing a federal crime.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 98,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. No matter how able they are or how well-educated, most will be forced to do the work their undocumented parents do: clean houses or work off the books in restaurants or on construction jobs.
Unless Congress changes the law, over the next 10 years, about 1 million new high school graduates will never be able to work. The nurses and teachers in our scholarship program won’t staff hospitals or classrooms.
Given that Congress has not passed an immigration bill since 1986, is it possible that lawmakers might approve one during this year’s lame-duck session? It is, and here’s why:
First look at the issue from the Republicans’ point of view. They believe that the first thing they must address in immigration law is the situation at the southern border, where last year more than 2,700,000 undocumented immigrants crossed the border. Regarding dreamers, many Republican senators and representatives say, we’d like to help them but we won’t until the border situation is fixed.
Doing something about the situation on the border is a good idea. But McCarthy’s pledge binds Republicans as tightly as it does the Democrats. If the speaker will allow no help (he would call it “amnesty”) for immigrants already in the United States to come to the floor, how will he fix the border? Does he think Congress will pass and Biden will sign an immigration bill that’s all enforcement and no relief for immigrants? Of course not.
Republican lawmakers should bring forward their best ideas to reinforce the border and also be prepared to help DACA-eligible young people and others get work permits and a chance at a green card. Give a faster path to citizenship for those who serve in health care or education and in rural or underserved communities. Allow dreamers to serve in the U.S. military.
Democrats, for their part, should be prepared to listen to ideas that would secure the southern border. The current situation appears to have hurt the party in the 2022 elections and will remain a huge problem in 2024. Here is a chance for Democrats to strengthen their immigration policy, while giving deserving people a chance to work legally in the United States — and then become citizens.