COMMENTARY Dreamers deserve better than limbo

  • By Kent James
September 23, 2017

President Trump’s order to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is indicative of his approach to governing – impetuous and shortsighted.

The move appeals to his base, which loved his anti-immigrant stance during the campaign, and it was initiated to avoid a threatened lawsuit by the attorneys general from a group of Republican states. The threat of deportation of the “Dreamers” is akin to a toddler threatening to hold his breath until he gets his way, since Trump undermined the threat by suggesting that the Dreamers had “nothing to worry about” and that he would “reconsider” his rescission if Congress failed to act. As with most of Trump’s policies, there is a lack of consistency, except that it does fit with his one consistent policy: undo everything President Obama did.

Ironically, Obama’s policy was working; even anti-immigrant Republicans were not clamoring to eliminate the program, because it solves a difficult problem. The people eligible for DACA, called Dreamers after the initial bipartisan Dream Act, which was introduced in 2001 but failed to pass, are undocumented through no fault of their own. In a tweet, Trump even questioned the result of his own action: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” Not surprisingly, most people don’t. Only 24 percent of Republicans want them deported, and two-thirds of self-identified Trump voters want them to be allowed to stay.

Immigration critics complain when immigrants don’t assimilate. But the Dreamers were brought into the United States as children, and since they grew up in America, they are so assimilated that many don’t even speak the language of their “home” country. For most, the U.S. is the only home they’ve ever known. Forcing them to go back to where they were born, to countries most have not even visited since they left (since they are undocumented, border crossing is risky), is cruel.

Deporting the Dreamers is economically shortsighted. By definition, Dreamers are either working, in the military, or in school. They are productive members of society. Since they are working, it is certainly true that, if they leave, their jobs would become available. But this is a very superficial understanding of the economy, in which every job vacated by an undocumented immigrant is available for someone else. Undocumented workers also spend most of the money they earn, so if they leave the country, their spending also leaves, which has a negative economic effect, eliminating jobs.

Additionally, some are in highly-skilled jobs that are hard to fill, so losing them also means doing without their education and training.

This is reversing one of the economic advantages of immigration – immigrants’ home countries pay to educate them, then they spend their productive years in the U.S. With the Dreamers, we would be doing the opposite. In purely economic terms, we have invested in their “human capital”, and after making that investment, we are making them leave, and getting nothing in return.

The Trump administration is also selling its policy on false pretenses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the end of the program, claimed that DACA encouraged a flood of young people from Central America crossing the boarder to take advantage of it. But while there was a wave of young immigrants from Latin America, that was caused by violence there, not by DACA, and began in 2011, before DACA was launched, and since they would have arrived after 2007, those immigrants would not even be eligible.

Sessions also misleadingly connected these immigrants to crime, in an effort to use fear to garner support for the rescission. But Sessions is wrong about immigrants generally; not counting their existence in the country as a crime, undocumented immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal activity than the native born. And this makes sense. The undocumented are essentially on probation, and to avoid deportation, they do what they can to avoid all interactions with the police. While Sessions is wrong about undocumented immigrants’ penchant for crime generally, he could not be more wrong about the Dreamers specifically. Serious criminals – those convicted of a felony, or even a “significant misdemeanor” – are excluded from the program.

One aspect of this issue where Trump has a point was the procedure by which the Dreamers were protected. Conservative critics of Obama claim that, because it was an executive order, DACA was an example of his dictatorial ambitions. In reality, it was Obama’s pragmatic move to go around a Congress that was unable to address immigration reform (a bill passed the House in 2011, but was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate). Obama claimed that he was using “prosecutorial discretion” to devote immigration enforcement resources to more serious violators. The idea is similar to the police choosing not to arrest or prosecute small amounts of marijuana. Even if marijuana is illegal, law enforcement can choose to ignore minor transgressions in order to focus on more significant violators. But, at the same time he describes Obama’s actions as executive overreach, Trump promises that if Congress doesn’t act by the deadline, he will, essentially replicating Obama actions.

Immigration is complicated, and does present serious challenges to our nation, in terms of national security, the economy, and the ethical question of what sort of nation we want to be. Maybe Trump’s gambit will force Congress to act. But given its recent history, that is unlikely, which at best, leaves the Dreamers in limbo. They deserve better.

James is an East Washington resident and has a degree in history and policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

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