Protect the Dreamers

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Immigrant rights supporters gather at the U.S. Capitol

On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy enacted by the Obama administration in 2012—was being rescinded. The policy allowed “Dreamers” who came to the United States when they were 15 years old or younger to apply for temporary work authorization and assurance that they wouldn’t be deported. Now, under the terms of the Trump administration’s decision (assuming Trump’s recent dinners with “Chuck” and “Nancy” and tweets fail to prompt a reversal), new applications will no longer be processed, application renewals will be discontinued after March 5, 2018, and people who currently benefit from DACA protections will begin to lose those benefits beginning on March 6.

Sessions’s attempted justification of this action, like that of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was based in economic falsehoods. He says that DACA “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens,” while Sanders’s “analysis” is that “over four million unemployed Americans in the same age group as those that are DACA recipients … could possibly have [DACA recipients’] jobs.” So if someone your age is unemployed, you’re taking their job?

In fact, there’s not a shred of evidence that these workers have been displaced by DACA recipients. Foreign-born workers are often complements to native-born workers, not substitutes for them (meaning they create new opportunities as opposed to displacing current workers). DACA recipients, for example, tend to have (or are pursuing) higher levels of education than most unemployed peers in their age range. Also, the idea that there are a fixed number of jobs assumes that immigrants merely create labor supply. But because of their purchases of food, clothing, housing, and other essentials, they also create labor demand, helping to increase the potential for economic growth.

Sessions also implied that harsh immigration policy “protects communities and taxpayers,” and that more welcoming policies have “put our nation at risk of crime, violence, and even terrorism.” Such lies are particularly virulent, as they revisit the “fear-the-other” strategy that was central to the Trump campaign.

As we discussed with Erica Williams and Meg Wiehe in a recent podcast , immigrants who lack legal status contribute billions of dollars per year in taxes and pay a significantly higher effective state and local tax rate than people in the top 1 percent (it’s worth noting here that DACA recipients aren’t eligible for most benefit programs, including nutrition assistance through SNAP and health care through Medicaid). We can’t even begin to quantify all of their contributions to American society. Moreover, cities with more welcoming policies for immigrants tend to have stronger economies and lower crime than cities with less welcoming policies; that’s not proof that immigrants are driving these effects, but it’s certainly an illustration of the baselessness of Sessions’s morally and factually wrong anti-immigrant insinuations.

Fortunately, the xenophobia emanating from the White House doesn’t have to carry the day. Congress must act in the next six months to write protections for the Dreamers into law, for which there appears to be some bipartisan support. They should pass the Dream Act of 2017, which would also provide those who came here as children with a path to citizenship, as soon as possible. While the bill’s outlined path is quite long, requiring someone to be a conditional permanent resident for eight years and a lawful permanent resident for another several years before applying, it would significantly improve on the status quo.

While it is encouraging to see Republican interest in providing a path to citizenship, we must be wary of proposals that would impose unnecessary obstacles to immigrants’ success.  Two Republican senators, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, this week introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Orrin Hatch of Utah, that rebrands the Dream Act as the Succeed Act and contains harsh provisions intended to fend off conservative criticism. For instance, people admitted under its provisions could not petition to bring in close relatives, a practice that has been denounced as “chain migration.” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, points out that the Succeed Act would also require “eligible Dreamers to wait nearly two decades before being eligible for citizenship[, exclude] the oldest Dreamers … from the program entirely[, and require] Dreamers to sign away future legal rights.” It is no replacement for the Dream Act.

In addition, as the price for a bill admitting Dreamers, Trump and the Democratic leadership have been discussing a “border security” package. Some Republicans in Congress, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have been demanding it. This would also be an unacceptable component of such a bill. Our borders are already too militarized, and detention conditions and deportation proceedings already far too harsh. Only a clean bill should be considered.

Given the Trump administration’s hostility to immigration, local and state governments must also do what they can to protect their immigrant populations. Well over 100 cities and counties across America have already become sanctuary jurisdictions. These localities remain in compliance with federal law, but they intentionally do not commit their own resources to pursue noxious federal immigration enforcement priorities. Sanctuary policies thus help local law enforcement build trust with communities, save money, and focus on public safety.

Williams and some of our other colleagues have highlighted three additional steps states can take to help their immigrant populations while improving their economies. First, they can increase funding and staffing for the enforcement of labor laws. Wage theft and misclassification issues are perpetrated more often against workers who lack legal status than against other workers, and allowing employers who steal from some workers to get away with it encourages a race to the bottom in workplace conditions for all workers. Better labor law enforcement would help foreign-born and native-born workers alike receive the wages to which they are entitled.

Second, states can provide in-state tuition and financial aid to all of their residents regardless of immigration status, thus mimicking the way a free K-12 education is available to every student in the country. In addition to helping immigrants by making college more accessible, this policy would help employers by increasing the pool of college-educated workers. Twenty-one states already offer in-state tuition regardless of immigration status to at least a subset of their colleges and universities, and eight states—California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Washington—already offer financial aid to students without legal citizenship.

Third, states should allow immigrants without legal status to obtain driver’s licenses; people in the United States who can’t legally drive may have a harder time getting to work, not to mention shopping or accessing medical care. While states did offer licenses to DACA-eligible individuals, the 800,000 people who applied under the program may lose them because of the Trump administration’s actions unless more states step in and ensure that they don’t (12 states already offer licenses regardless of legal status).

The facts show that inclusive immigration policy, like a clean Dream Act and the state and local actions outlined above, makes economic and fiscal sense. More importantly, though, welcoming immigrants and giving them a fair shot is the right thing to do. Oftentimes in politics, a crisis begets an opportunity. This is one such time, so let’s take advantage of the opportunity to advance the just cause of inclusion.

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