A chance for an historic win on immigration reform — if only Democrats will hang tough

A measure to grant permanent legal status to young people brought to our country illegally years ago would be perfectly appropriate in a proposed $3.5 trillion federal budget package.

SHARE A chance for an historic win on immigration reform — if only Democrats will hang tough
Charles Schumer

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks with faith leaders, immigrants and advocates, outside the US Capitol during a 12-hour prayer and story vigil to demand that Congress include a pathway to citizenship in the infrastructure package on July 27.

AFP photo

More than 80,000 young undocumented immigrants who hoped to gain legal protections through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program had their dreams dashed in July when a federal judge in Texas closed the program to first-time applicants.

The judge’s unfortunate ruling has prompted Democrats to redouble their efforts to create a more permanent legal-status solution for these young people, often called “Dreamers,” who were brought to our country illegally as children and call no other nation home.

This time, advocates for the Dreamers, including the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, are putting their hopes in a proposed $3.5 trillion federal budget plan, supported only by Democrats on Capitol Hill, to finally achieve this fundamental immigration reform. Because it is a budget bill, Democrats could push it through by a simple majority vote, bypassing Republican opposition.

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President Joe Biden last Thursday made clear he supports including immigration reform — specific steps to protect Dreamers from deportation and possibly give them a clear path to citizenship — in the budget package. But Biden did not spell out exactly what changes he has in mind. And Republicans, for their part, wonder what immigration reform has to do with the budget.

We would remind the Republican critics that federal budgets are never just about dollars and cents, but always about values and priorities, whether that means earmarking funds for a border wall, for early childhood education, for Social Security or — as in this latest case — for a program to protect young undocumented immigrants from unjust deportations.

The Democrats’ proposed budget package still is being firmed up. It will be a challenge — a real trick — to get even all Democrats in the Senate to sign on to the massive bill, and compromise is the name of the game. But when it comes to including immigration reform measures, we trust that leading Democratic advocates, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, will hang tough.

After years of being undermined by the Trump administration, the DACA program was fully reinstated in December 2020, but the pace of approving new applications was slow. As of May 31, only about 1,900 of more than 62,000 applications had been approved. By the end of June, the backlog of applications had grown to more than 80,000.

In response, the Biden administration moved to assign more immigration officers to the job, but it was too late. On July 17, a federal judge in Texas, Andrew Hanen, ruled that the program could not accept new applicants, citing technical violations of federal law. DACA, Hanen concluded, violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal rulemaking, by evading the normal “notice and comment” process in adopting new rules.

Hanen’s decision doesn’t immediately threaten legal protects for some 616,030 Dreamers already protected under DACA, but it leaves those 80,000 new applicants out in the cold.

Adding to their distress, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced last week that each applicant who paid $495 in fees will not get a refund.

Biden initially attempted to achieve the same goal — of locking in permanent legal status for Dreamers and offering them a way to citizenship — through his proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, as well as the American Dream and Promise Act. But the legislation has stalled in the Senate, where at least 10 Republican votes are needed for passage.

Hence the effort to score a victory for immigration reform through the budgeting process, where a Senate parliamentary process called reconciliation allows passage of a bill by means of a simple majority vote.

Biden indicated his support for this strategy by tucking the word reconciliation into his remarks on Thursday. He said:

“I have repeatedly called on Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, and I now renew that call with the greatest urgency. It is my fervent hope that through reconciliation or other means, Congress will finally provide security to all Dreamers, who have lived too long in fear.”

We see an historic win for justice in the offing. If only the Democrats will go for it.

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