OPINION: Immigration Reform: A Decade of Failed Promises


By Neil Gundavda

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was first introduced in 2001 as a bipartisan step towards comprehensive immigration reform. However, it ushered in a decade of acrimonious debate over not just immigration, but over the very values of what it means to be “American.” Republicans that supported the DREAM act faced vitriolic assaults from their home constituencies and the last four years of Congressional extremism scuttled a multitude of attempts to make the bill a reality.

Four months ago, the Obama administration put forth a plan to offer “deferred action” to young immigrants who originally qualified for the provisions of the DREAM Act.  Illegal immigrants can request deferred deportation for a two-year period if they are younger than 31, came to the United States before they were 16, lived in the United States since June 15, 2007, and are currently in school or have graduated from high school or have been honorably discharged from the military.

Applicants must have a clean criminal record and possess no threat to national security. Once deferred-action is granted, the individual can work legally in the United States. “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or DACA began in earnest on Aug. 15, and received 82,361 applications within one month. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) claims that 1,660 of these requests are ready for review and that 29 have been completed.

Is DACA an appropriate substitute for the Dream Act? Within a week of the new directive’s launch, ten U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents filed a lawsuit in Texas against the Obama administration, saying that the new policy prohibits them from doing their job. The allegations within the lawsuit have broader implications for Obama’s non-deportation strategy than the constraints on ICE’s ability to deport.

The lawsuit alleges that DACA violates the Congress’s constitutional purview to govern immigration policy and that it breaches the “Administrative Procedure Act,” which requires federal agencies to publish proposed new regulations in the Federal Register before they are enacted. This allows for public commentary and objections.

The ICE agents may not have legal standing in court, but the lawsuit demonstrates just how complicated non-deportation can be. The presiding judge in Texas could issue an injunction, which would interfere with the promise of non-deportation. Other anti-immigration groups could find more salient lawsuits. This case or a similar one may even end up at the docket in the Supreme Court.

If presidential candidate Mitt Romney were to win the 2012 election, he could end DACA with the stroke of his pen.  What happens to the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants  (soon to be the hundreds of thousands) who have supplied the federal government with damning evidence of their whereabouts and activities?  USCIS has collected biometric data and information about family members and close relatives.

Congressional action on the DREAM Act is perhaps now more necessary than any other time in the last decade.  The illegal immigrants that are applying for deferred action have almost no protection. While the opportunity to secure jobs that are not ‘under the table’ is enticing, the ephemerality of the new regulations could be extremely detrimental.

As Carolyn Fuchs, a prominent immigration lawyer in the Boston area, recently put it, DACA is not only “a piecemeal thing, but a dangerous thing. It puts people in danger because they don’t know what is coming next.”

Those applying for this new protection are putting their lives into the hands of an uncertain political climate. A change in administration or the whim of a rather unpredictable federal jury could cost them everything.

Years of inaction by Congress perhaps necessitated bold action by the executive branch. However, it does not go far enough in protecting young immigrants.

The next Congress must not only enact the provisions of the new policy but also take steps to address comprehensive immigration reform.  If lawmakers are serious about restarting a torpid economy, they must realize that America’s innovation and strength comes from the diversity of its people. This of course, is a product of immigration.  Bright and talented immigrants can help rebuild this country. Instead, they are marked as targets for deportation and constantly live in fear over their uncertain status.

The DREAM Act represented a culmination of efforts by both parties to address a calamitous situation for young immigrants.  It is time for a renewed commitment towards turning this dream into reality.

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