Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute Director Elizabeth Vaquera and scholar Aaron Madrid Aksöz discuss legislation to protect approximately 800,000 Dreamers.
In September, the Trump administration announced its decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants protections to nearly 800,000 undocumented individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children. In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the program would wind down in order to give Congress time to pass new legislation. Although proposals to replace DACA have emerged in Congress, no bills have been brought to the floor and a vote may have to wait until January, leaving the future of many students in limbo.
George Washington Today spoke with Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute Director Elizabeth Vaquera and Cisneros Institute scholar Aaron Madrid Aksöz to examine why DACA legislation has stalled in Congress, what might happen if a new act fails to pass and how this is affecting students.
Q: The Washington Post recently reported that competing bills have been proposed in Congress to offer DACA recipients a path to citizenship. What do we know about some of the current proposals floating through Congress?
A: Several proposals have been introduced in Congress since the Trump administration announced it would end the DACA program in September, with varying features. Proposals introduced by Democrats aim to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers without adding additional border enforcement or a border wall. This is known as a “Clean Dream Act” and is preferred by civil rights groups like United We Dream and the ACLU. Bipartisan or Republican bills often offer a path to legalization for Dreamers but do not allow for a pathway to citizenship or chain migration and often are paired with additional funding for a border wall or additional enforcement.
Q: Why has it been so difficult to push DACA-related legislation through Congress? What are some hurdles DACA proposals are facing?
A: Immigration has always been a difficult issue for Congress to address. In the last couple of decades, this has been particularly complicated by the effort from some leaders to conflate it with border security. The DREAM Act is about undocumented youth who arrived as children through no fault of their own who have grown up as Americans, studying and working like everybody else. It has been introduced multiple times since 2001, spurred on by efforts of organized young immigrants and with broad public support. However, even when the Democrats held a majority in both chambers in 2010, they were unable to pass immigration reform. More recently, in 2013, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package failed in the House even after receiving 68 votes in the Senate.
The biggest obstacle for the current proposal is the partisan polarization in Congress today. In order for the proposal to become law, it has to be passed by the House, get at least 60 votes in the Senate and be signed by the president. A bill like the DREAM Act has long been seen as “amnesty” to many lawmakers and convincing them to support the program is not going to be easy. To pass the DREAM Act under the current House, it will likely need to include some additional border enforcement funding, but there are indications that Democrats will not vote for any proposal that includes funding for a border wall.
When President Trump rescinded DACA earlier this year, the program was enormously popular among the American public with polls indicating that 76 percent of voters were in favor of permanent relief for Dreamers including 65 to 72 percent of Trump voters (depending on poll). This underscores that it is a political ball being kicked back and forth between Republicans and Democrats that is out of sync with the wishes of the American public. Indeed, one could argue that Dreamers are being used as leverage to advance an agenda on border security.
Q: What information do we have about what will happen if Congress fails to pass legislation, especially as some DACA protections expire in March? Mr. Trump has said he will revisit the issue if nothing is passed—how likely is this?
A: If Congress fails to pass the DREAM Act or similar legislation by March, Dreamers will lose their status and become undocumented once again. DACA status lasts for two years, and once their permits expire, Dreamers will no longer be able to work and are at serious risk of deportation. Even more troubling, the Department of Homeland Security, which administers the DACA program under the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has a lot of personal information about all 800,000 or so Dreamers. This includes their address, place of work and, in some cases, their family members. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were granted access to this information and decided to start deporting DACA recipients, there would be nothing that could be done to stop it. Under the Obama administration, Dreamers were assured their information would not be shared with immigration enforcement agencies, but there’s nothing stopping President Trump from reversing that promise.
From our own research on this topic, we have a good sense of the potential consequences of phasing out DACA. From interviews with DACA recipients that took place this fall, we have evidence that the rescission of DACA affected their mental health, including increases in depression and suicide attempts. In the longer term, students may have to drop out of universities and will be let go from their jobs as they will no longer be able to legally work. The effect on the economy is likely to be significant in many communities. For example, the U.S. has over 20,000 teachers who are DACA recipients who will no longer be able to teach once they lose their status.
President Trump has said he will revisit the issue if Congress fails to address it, but it remains unclear what he would do if that happened. Outrage, like the current mobilization and organizing we are seeing, could bring additional attention to the issue if nothing is done, which could spark some action by Congress or the president. This grassroots activism—including the demonstration on Nov. 9 in support of a Clean Dream Act, in which several dozen GW students participated alongside students from other universities from the area—will likely continue into the future if Congress fails to act.
Q: The federal government recently agreed to process many DACA renewals delayed in the mail. What other updates should DACA recipients know about renewing their status?
A: Except for some applications that were delayed, USCIS will no longer accept any more renewal applications. If Congress does not pass legislation to protect Dreamers by March 5, those whose work permits expire after that date will lose their status and can be subject to deportation. Given the previous evidence of lack of action from Congress on immigration-related issues, it depends on the American people to act and demonstrate to the Congress that this is something they support and want resolved so that these Dreamers will continue to be productive members of society.