Viewpoints: Congress should stand by Dreamers, grant them legal status

Since 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has protected young undocumented immigrants raised and educated in this country from deportation and granted them work visas. That could very well come to an end by early next year. If it does, the threat of deportation once again will hang over the heads of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.

The Obama-era program was always intended to be a temporary solution until Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform or Dream Act legislation that would offer legal status and an opportunity toward citizenship to those who entered the country illegally as children. But neither ever came. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he is ending DACA — and he called on Congress again to deliver immigration reform or a DACA replacement. Trump gave lawmakers six months to act.

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Congress needs to deliver — and it must do so quickly to avoid creating more fear and uncertainty among Dreamers, as DACA recipients are known.

For decades, members of Congress have complained about our broken immigration system but have done little to fix it. Partisan politics and language get in the way. Congress — our country — can’t afford more missed opportunities.

Current Dreamers, as well as the many more who would have been eligible and who until this week looked to the program as a beacon of hope, should be protected.

Dreamers are tightly woven into the fabric of this nation. They are students, educators, civic leaders, members of our armed forces, service providers, business owners, health professionals and legal advocates. They give back to their communities. Some like Alonso Guillén, who drowned rescuing Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston, become heroes.

Dreamers bravely came forward from out of the shadows and acted in good faith, trusting our nation’s leaders by applying for DACA protection. If it’s not already shattered, their trust is being tested.

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The administration’s decision to rescind the program was no coincidence. An ultimatum by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republican officials in nine other states pushed Trump to act. Paxton threatened to sue the administration if DACA wasn’t rescinded by Tuesday, claiming DACA was an unlawful overreach.

Without DACA, the future of Dreamers is unknown. One thing is certain, however: The absence of their contributions will be felt in the communities where they live.

Consider that DACA has benefited about 800,000 undocumented immigrants since it began in 2012, including 234,000 in Texas. Most, 91 percent, are employed, or are students as required by DACA, according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.

An economic analysis by the institute found that without DACA recipient contributions, the U.S. gross domestic product would lose $433.4 billion over the next 10 years. The Texas economy would lose $6.1 billion if 100,000 DACA recipients were no longer in the local workforce, according to the analysis.

Dreamers are American in every way except birthright. The U.S. is their home. On average, DACA recipients arrived in the U.S. at the age of 6, according to political science professor Tom K. Wong at the University of California San Diego.

Dreamers should not be made to pay for the sins of their parents. They belong here. Most Americans agree; a recent NBC/SurveyMonkey poll found that 64 percent of those surveyed support DACA.

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Congress must get past the current anti-immigrant political climate and focus on bipartisan support pushing to make DACA-like benefits permanent.

In the Senate, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have authored S-1615, known as the 2017 Dream Act, which would grant eligible young undocumented immigrants permanent residence and a path to citizenship with criteria similar to that needed to qualify for DACA.

Several bills have also been filed in the House, including H.R. 1468, the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, which would grant five-year conditional legal status before recipients can be considered for permanent legal status. Citizenship would be an option after 10 years under the RAC Act.

Whatever the route, Congress needs to identify legislation that grants legal status for Dreamers who meet qualifying criteria.

But Congress can’t stop there. Addressing the fate of Dreamers is only the first step. Comprehensive immigration reform should be the end goal. Reforms should secure our borders — and at the very least, provide a variety of programs that help immigrants obtain driver’s licenses and other documents that allow them to work and live in the country legally.

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Removing immigrants who are dangerous criminals and threaten the safety of our communities should continue. Current federal and state policies ensure as much. Effective immigration reform will go beyond rhetoric and acknowledge our nation’s economic dependence on immigrants and their valued contributions to this country. Legislation that provides a reasonable path for immigrants to work and live here is long overdue.

For now, Congress must send a resounding message to our Dreamers: We won’t let you down.

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