By Jennie L. Ilustre
Advocates are urging Congress to approve the 2017 DREAM Act, introduced last July 20 by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, and Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, in the 115th U.S. Congress.
The bipartisan bill seeks to provide legal status, as well as a pathway to citizenship, to undocumented children or minors raised and educated in the U.S. if they meet certain requirements. Advocates assert the fate of the young people would be better through legislation, instead of through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive program that President Trump can end anytime.
“OCA calls on Congress to pass the Dream Act and protect the DACA program,” OCA National Vice President of Public Affairs Vicki Shu said, as OCA hailed the bill as a welcome development. OCA–Asian Pacific American Advocates is a national organization of community advocates “dedicated to the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian American Pacific Islanders.”
Thousands of Asians eligible for DACA did not apply for fear of outing themselves as undocumented to their communities. “The Dream Act will help alleviate these fears and allow them access to important rights and resources,” said OCA National Vice President of Public Affairs Shu. “However, until this bill is passed, it is crucial that we support and protect the DACA program.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC President and Executive Director John C. Yang said the DREAM Act is “a step in the right direction in fixing our broken immigration system, along with saving DACA.” He added that the bill is “keeping hope alive for DACA” recipients. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, based in the nation’s capital, is an affiliation of five civil rights organizations.
Currently, there are about 800,000 DACA recipients. Most of them are Hispanics, but the figure also includes Asians. Some 130,000 Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are qualified to apply for DACA. But as of March 2015, only 18,000 Asians – from South Korea, Philippines, India and Pakistan – had applied for DACA. The 800,000 total includes those who have applied this year, encouraged by President Trump’s statement at a press conference, made days after his January inauguration, that he would “show great heart” toward those covered by DACA.
Senators on Dream Act
In introducing the updated Dream Act, Republican Senator Graham remarked: “These young people have lived in America since they were children and built their lives here. There is support across the country for allowing Dreamers – who have records of achievement – to stay, work, and reach their full potential. We should not squander these young people’s talents and penalize our own nation. Our legislation would allow these young people – who grew up in the United States – to contribute more fully to the country they love. They have a powerful story to tell and this may be an area where both parties can come together.”
Democratic Senator Durbin said: “Hundreds of thousands of talented young people who have grown up in our country are at risk of deportation to countries they barely remember. I’ll do everything in my power as a United States Senator to protect these Dreamers and give them the chance to become American citizens so they can contribute to a brighter future for all Americans. I first introduced the Dream Act 16 years ago and I’ll continue fighting until it becomes the law of the land. I thank Senator Graham for partnering with me in this bipartisan effort.”
In 2001, Senator Durbin introduced a similar Dream Act, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. The bill, re-filed for years, kept faltering in the U.S. Congress. With legislation going nowhere, President Obama resorted to an Executive Action, initiating DACA in 2012.
Dream Act Provisions
The Dream Act of 2017 would allow those who entered the country as children or minors without authorization to earn lawful permanent residence and eventually American citizenship if they:
- Are longtime residents who came to the U.S. as children;
- Graduate from high school or obtain a GED;
- Pursue higher education, work lawfully for at least three years, or serve in the military;
- Pass security and law enforcement background checks and pay a reasonable application fee;
- Demonstrate proficiency in the English language and a knowledge of United States history; and
- Have not committed a felony or other serious crimes and do not pose a threat to our country.
Bill Faces Uphill Climb
Advocates acknowledged that the 2017 Dream Act faces an uphill climb. In a phone interview, community leader Bing C. Branigin cited as major hurdles the hostile administration policy against undocumented immigrants, as well as the busy agenda of the first session of the 115th Congress. “It is a tough challenge, but the Filipino American community will join forces with other Asian American groups in actively lobbying Congress to get this bill passed,” added the former Region II chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).
Remarked APALA Executive Director Alvina Yeh: “There is no doubt that the fight for justice for undocumented immigrants will be an uphill battle. Alongside our allies, APALA continues to pressure elected officials to pass legislation that protects undocumented immigrants, de-criminalizes our communities, and recognizes the dignity and respect of all immigrants and refugees in this country.”
Advocacy organizations urge Asian American and other minority voters to write or call the senators in their states to co-sponsor the Dream Act. Voters can also prod their congressmen and congresswomen to introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives of the 115th U.S. Congress, and can appeal to several Congress Members to co-sponsor both bills.
American Immigration Lawyers Association
Other advocates in Mainstream America are pushing for the passage of the Dream Act. American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) President Annaluisa Padilla praised Senators Graham and Durbin, adding: “There is tremendous bipartisan support for Dreamers and for reforms that will take them out of the purgatory of a life in fear and on to a route to permanent status, and ultimately citizenship, in the country they call home.”
“While Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has given many young, talented and contributing members of our communities a temporary reprieve from deportation, Dreamers deserve an opportunity to secure a permanent home in our country,” she pointed out. “Through the filing of DACA applications, thousands of AILA members have advised and represent Dreamers, and the stories of each individual seeking a better life, a better education, a chance to work, and a life free from fear, are affirmations of the American Dream. With their hard work, perseverance, and deep community roots, Dreamers make our country stronger and better.”
AILA Executive Director Benjamin Johnson also noted on July 20: “The introduction of this bill is proof that when it comes to immigration, it is possible to set aside partisan politics and do the right thing. Today, Senators Graham and Durbin have declared their intention to stand up for Dreamers and now the administration must follow suit. For more than 15 years, an overwhelming majority of the public has agreed that the Dreamer population is an integral part of our country and that they deserve a chance to build their lives here.”
“DACA was a first step in that process and though it provides short-term protection, it is not the solution,” he stressed. “We call on President Trump to pledge to protect DACA grantees and keep the program alive until the Dream Act becomes law.”
DACA is a two-year renewable program. It provides benefits such as work permit and protection from deportation for children or minors who entered the country without authorization. President Obama started the program in 2012, saying the youth, raised and educated in the country, are practically Americans.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s top leader Yang said, “We call on the administration to commit to continuing the DACA program as Trump initially indicated he would do. The administration should defend the close to 800,000 DACA recipients, 95 percent of whom are currently enrolled in school or working full-time jobs. Ending the DACA program without providing a solution for DACA recipients would be cruel and heartless.”
DACA recipients are now productive members of society, according to a 2016 study by the Center for American Progress, which found that “DACA had a positive economic impact on its recipients – and on the overall economy.” Raul A. Reyes, a lawyer and member of the USA Today newspaper’s board of contributors, cited the study in a CNN opinion piece on June 16. “DACA grantees are attending college, becoming entrepreneurs and fully integrating into society,” he noted.
Actions at the State Level
Asian Americans Advancing Justice noted that aside from the proposed DREAM legislation, as well as preserving DACA at the federal level, states also have the opportunity to consider policy that protects immigrants.
In California, similar efforts are underway to protect undocumented immigrants through the California Values Act (SB 54), which would ultimately make California a sanctuary state.
In Illinois, the bi-partisan TRUST Act passed the legislature and now awaits the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner. “The TRUST Act would draw a bright line between federal immigration enforcement and local police,” observed the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, urging him to “sign this legislation immediately.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC President and Executive Director Yang pointed out: “The immigration system is in need of many reforms to fix the decades of imbalanced and now inhumane treatment of immigrants who come to, or are currently here in the U.S. We are heartened that the federal DREAM Act and state legislation like the Illinois TRUST Act and California Values Act offer steps towards creating an immigration system that treats immigrants with the fairness and dignity that all people deserve.”
For All Immigrants
Remarked Johanna Puno Hester, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA) National President and Assistant Executive Director of the United Domestic Workers, AFSCME Local 3930: “As an immigrant myself, I am glad that Congress is taking action against this anti-immigrant administration.”
“However, if Congress truly wants to enact pro-immigrant policies, passing the DREAM Act is only one solution,” she stressed. “We must continue to put pressure on elected officials at the federal and local level to pass legislation that protects sanctuary cities, defunds and demilitarizes our borders and our communities, and ensures that the millions of immigrants who are not protected under DACA or the DREAM Act of 2017 are able to live in this country without fear of detention or deportation.”
Yves Gomes, APALA National Executive Board Member, commented: “DACA and the DREAM Act of 2017 are no doubt avenues toward comprehensive immigration reform. However, let us remember that all immigrants deserve dignity and respect and we, as immigrant rights advocates, must fight against a divisive narrative that paints a good versus bad immigrant. The time to act is now, and we will continue to protect and defend our brothers and sisters from policies laced with anti-immigrant and racist sentiment.”