Columnist Jim Oldham: It’s time to pass the ‘Dream Act’

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Last week’s announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that President Donald Trump had ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was no less disturbing for being expected from this bigoted, hateful, confused administration.

The mixed messages from Trump, hinting at support for Congressional action to reinstate DACA through legislation, don’t mitigate the order’s impact on hundreds of thousands of young Americans whose futures were already at risk due the precarious nature of their rights and their family’s immigrant status.

Created by former President Barack Obama through executive order in 2012, the DACA program provided relief from deportation for people brought into the United States as children. Known as “dreamers,” they were given the ability to work legally, get a driver’s license and attend college.

DACA was only available to people under the age of 31 who came here before they were 16 and resided in the U.S. continuously since 2007. Participants had to have a clean criminal record and be enrolled in or graduated from high school, or in or honorably discharged from the military, and they had to renew their status every two years.

In the five years since its creation, despite its limited reach and benefits, DACA had a significant impact on the lives of the approximately 800,000 young people who registered. According to Vox, 69 percent of them were able to get a job with better pay, 61 percent opened a first bank account, 65 percent purchased their first car, and 65 percent pursued educational opportunities previously unavailable to them.

The basic justice (as limited as it is) of the program was obvious to anyone willing to see. Polls show that three quarters of Americans, including majorities of registered Republicans and of self-identified Trump supporters, favor letting “dreamers” stay in the U.S. Business leaders have spoken out and the bipartisan United States Conference of Mayors has called for giving “dreamers” permanent legal status. None other than House Speaker Paul Ryan has observed, “These are kids who know no other country, who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home.”

The Trump administration’s DACA decision, although not immediately withdrawing the rights provided to registered participants, closed the door to all new applicants, and although “dreamers” whose work permits expire before March 5, 2018 can apply for a two-year renewal, that opportunity ends Oct. 5. After that, the deferred action status and employment authorization documents of all “dreamers” will come to an end as their two-year registrations expire.

Some “dreamers” will lose the program’s protection and become at risk of deportation as early as next March, with the rest facing the same situation later in 2018 and early 2019. This is especially worrying because, in order to participate in DACA, “dreamers” came forward and self-identified as undocumented immigrants, letting the government track their addresses, work information and other personal information. Of course, even while still registered, “dreamers” aren’t really secure because the Department of Homeland Security maintains its “discretionary authority to terminate or deny deferred action for any reason, at any time, with or without notice.”

As dangerous as the current situation is, there is hope that the urgency and strong public sentiment could push Congress to finally pass the “Dream Act,” legislation to provide “dreamers” with a path to permanent legal status and citizenship that has been proposed in some form for the last 16 years. Although this would only represent a partial fix to our immigration mess, it would be a critical first step toward developing sensible and humane treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, despite a handful of Republicans leading on this issue, many in that party see the plight of the “dreamers” as an opportunity to bargain for concessions on other aspects of immigration, such as the funding of the border wall or other forms of enforcement.

Despite Ryan’s compassionate sounding statement, he has not taken leadership on this issue and has previously pledged to conservatives not to allow any bill on immigration that lacks support among a majority of Republicans. To pass, the “Dream Act” requires insistent public demand and an unwavering effort by Democrats in Congress over the next six months. We must make it happen.

In any sane discourse, U.S. leaders would be strongly advocating for “dreamers” to stay and work legally in the country. Leaving aside any sense of basic human decency, allowing “dreamers” to remain makes sense for the U.S. for purely selfish reasons.

These young people have been educated in our schools, raised in our communities. They are coming of age and entering careers, with capacity to contribute to society for decades to come.

Given our aging population and the many needs and challenges we face, it is unspeakably foolish to waste resources persecuting people whose desire to contribute to our shared country we should embrace.

Jim Oldham is an Amherst Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.