Congress, stop holding ‘Dreamers’ hostage

Amid the contentiousness of our national debate on immigration policy, consensus has emerged on one issue: “Dreamers.” Children brought to the U.S. by their parents, through no fault of their own, deserve a right to stay in our country as Americans.

But both the far left and the far right have used Dreamers as a chit to leverage their other immigration goals for 20 years. This constant fighting, and lack of legislative action, has denied legal certainty for Dreamers. With a federal judge’s ruling July 16 that the stopgap Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive branch program is illegal, now is the time for Congress to enact standalone legislation for Dreamers. 

My former boss, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from Utah, was among the first to introduce the Dream Act to provide legal status to childhood arrivals way back in 2001. He, like many conservatives, believed that it was immoral and improper to hold a child accountable for the actions of their parent(s).  

But like many commonsense immigration proposals, both extremes in the debate have held various versions of the Dream Act hostage for two decades, tying the fate of the Dreamers to other, more controversial proposals. Legislators on the right have pushed for stronger employer enforcement, tighter asylum standards, and border fencing. For the left, activists have demanded tying the fate of Dreamers to other undocumented populations, foregoing opportunities to pass something like the Dream Act on a standalone basis.

Understandably unwilling to maintain the status quo, President Obama attempted to help the Dreamers with the creation of the DACA program, which protected about 800,000 at its peak. Today, there are about 650,000 DACA recipients out of more than 1.3 million who would be eligible. 

But the program always rested on shaky legal footing. President Obama himself said for many years that he did not have the authority to legalize Dreamers — and DACA does not confer legal status. Finally, now, after nearly a decade of litigation and with a more conservative judiciary, DACA is in serious jeopardy: U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling this month means that new DACA applications cannot be processed, and only a temporary stay of the ruling keeps DACA intact for current recipients. 

Even if the program were upheld on appeal, having hundreds of thousands of adults living on two-year intervals of deferred action under DACA is unacceptable as a long-term solution.

With DACA now nine years old, recipients are building careers, community roots, and families with American citizen children. These Dreamers are also furthering American prosperity as workers, entrepreneurs, and consumers — Americans depend on them. We should be grateful that they have endured for a nearly a decade under these temporary arrangements that do not comport with our ideal of America as a home for those who want to strive for a better life. 

Reasonable people can disagree about the balance of legalization and deportation for adults who broke the law on their own volition years ago. Reasonable people can argue about employer and interior enforcement, and physical barriers on the southern border. Reasonable people can debate the mix of guest worker programs, visa issuance standards and how best to fight terrorism from abroad. All of these are important aspects of the immigration debate. 

But the era of denying Dreamers their permanent home in America on the hopes that either the right or left will enact their wish list of immigration proposals — or score political points trying — is cruel. It needs to stop in 2021. Congress should enact a fulsome version of the Dream Act, much like Sen. Hatch urged 20 years ago.

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration. He is the Former Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning at the U.S Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration.