Immigration strategy for House Democrats: legislate and investigate

The midterm elections are over and the new year is upon us. As new members get sworn in, the 116th Congress will be split with a House Democratic majority and a Senate Republican majority. 

Despite the partial shutdown, a divided Congress can bring bipartisan opportunities to legislate towards modernizing our outdated immigration system. At the same time, the new House Democratic majority must also investigate President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE’s erratic immigration policies. 

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Until now, only the federal courts that have remained resolute in their constitutional obligation to restrain the president’s arbitrary actions including dismissing the Justice Department policies that made it harder for immigrants to claim asylum because of domestic violence or gang violence.

It’s time for Congress to step up and work on meaningful immigration legislation. One of the first opportunities of this will be the DREAM Act. 

Of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, more than 1 million are Dreamers or undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children. 

In 2012, then-President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to temporarily protect Dreamers from deportation. Trump terminated the program five years later. Fortunately, federal courts have blocked the White House from fully ending the immigration protection. 

Congress still needs to find a permanent solution for the Dreamers, however. The DREAM Act has been introduced countless times over the past two decades with overwhelming bipartisan support. Giving Dreamers a path to citizenship — through education or military service — will allow these young people to transition out of DACA and out of the shadows to fully contribute to their communities.

Another opportunity for bipartisan support is to pass legislation that will bring more resources to clear bureaucratic red-tape and reduce the average processing time for green card applicants and permanent residents applying for naturalization. 

Among a recent change causing delays is the expansion of in-person interviews to all employment-based applicants who are filing for green cards. Interviews for employment-based green cards were largely waived unless there were major issues, like criminal arrests, that needed to be reviewed in person. 

Because the small number of immigrations officers will now have to schedule thousands of extra interviews, this delays processing times for other types of cases.

In fact, more than 700,000 immigrants are waiting on applications to become citizens, a process that once took about six months but has stretched to more than two years in some places under the Trump administration.

Another congressional opportunity will be to demilitarize immigration enforcement. While the president is the commander-in-chief, Congress ultimately has the power to declare war and defund the president’s military actions, especially when there is no immediate threat to our nation. 

Bipartisan efforts continue to grow against Trump’s decision to deploy thousands of soldiers to the border to intercept asylum seekers from Central America. The military deployment has been deemed wasteful and unnecessary even in the eyes of military officials. The total price of the military deployment could reach $200 million. 

Despite international outcry over the travel ban of people from majority-Muslim countries or the separation of children from their parents at the border, Republican-led committees held zero oversight hearings.

Trump hid behind a national security veil as an excuse to enact policies that have resulted in the violation of U.S. and international laws

House Democrats must reassert Congress’ constitutional authority and wield the gavel of the powerful House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees to investigate the death of children at the border, termination of the DACA program, and internal communication between White House advisors, like Stephen Miller, and immigration agency officials to expose the xenophobic and illegal agenda behind Trump’s policies. 

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In less than a month, two children have tragically died while in custody of Customs and Border Protection. While Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump taps FEMA official to lead agency Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? MORE indicated there will be internal reviews, House Democrats cannot let the fox guard the henhouse. They must investigate the medical care afforded to children, facilities in which children are detained, and social services provided, if any. 

Accessing internal government documents from White House officials and agencies will also be critical for proper congressional and judicial oversight into the key decisions that have resulted in the unlawful termination of immigration programs or enactment of discriminatory policies. Indeed, a federal court has ruled that Trump likely shut down the DACA program for racial reasons.

In the end, legislating and investigating go hand in hand. Enacting good laws and upholding our system of checks and balances protects our democracy and our tradition as a nation of immigrants. 

The American people are counting that Congress can chew and walk at the same time. 

Cesar VargasYesenia Mata and Carlos Vargas are directors of the Dream Action Coalition and national activist for immigration reform.