Ali Noorani: Restoration of DACA benefits US and Dreamers — now we need immigration law reform

Biden and Congress should act in 2021

The Trump administration action this week complying with a court order to fully restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is an important first step to reform America’s immigration system, but more action will be needed by President-elect Joe Biden and Congress in 2021.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it is fully restoring the DACA program and will accept new applications from immigrants who are eligible, protecting them from being deported.

DACA was created under an order issued by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 to allow immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children, in violation of U.S. law, to apply for temporary permission to remain here.

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However, President Trump tried in 2017 to end DACA, arguing in a statement: “The legislative branch, not the executive branch, writes [immigration] laws. … It is now time for Congress to act!”

In other words, Trump argued that the Obama administration had no right to create DACA, that the program had to be ended, and that anything like it must be approved by Congress and signed into law by the president.

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But over the course of nearly four years in office, Trump undermined multiple legislative opportunities to reach a legislative solution for the young people known as Dreamers, including the approximately 650,000 young people protected by DACA. And yet, Trump signed more than 400 immigration executive actions.

As his time in office winds down, the courts have forced Trump’s hand on DACA.

In an important decision Friday, U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis in New York brought some temporary stability back to the lives of immigrants when he ruled that the Trump administration must fully restore DACA and accept new applications for the program. The action by the judge followed a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that said the way Trump ended the program three years ago violated federal law.

As required, the Trump administration met Garaufis’ Monday deadline to restore the DACA program — protecting existing recipients and allowing as many as 300,000 new applicants to apply for DACA protection from deportation. However, the Trump administration said it “may seek relief from the order” in the future.

DACA in full effect is good for American workers, their families, and for Dreamers. And to paraphrase the words of President Trump from 2017, it is time for Congress to act.

At an event we convened two weeks after the November election, National Association of Manufacturers’ CEO Jay Timmons noted that nearly 30,000 people whom DACA protects are frontline health care workers.

Timmons said that if DACA had ended “they’d have been gone. And right now we can't keep up with the massive amount of needs in our hospitals and our health care facilities because of COVID. Can you imagine what that would have been like without 27,000 of those first responders?”

As we consider the post-pandemic recovery, it’s crucial to note that over the next 10 years, Dreamers will contribute an estimated $433 billion to the gross domestic product and pay $12.3 billion in taxes to Social Security and Medicare. 

After seeing the news of the last few days, Grisell Mendoza, whose dreams of becoming a surgeon were “shattered” in 2017 when President Trump rescinded DACA, told the Miami Herald’s Monique O. Madan: “There was hope. Joy. Skepticism.”

Now, Mendoza said, she is preparing to file her application for DACA protection, but is “also petrified to be let down.”

Or think about Javier R. Quiroz Castro. He and his U.S. citizen wife are raising a 1-year-old in Houston while he is part of the team taking care of patients at the designated COVID-19 cohort for Houston Methodist Hospital. Castro has received multiple nursing awards for his dedicated care of his patients and is incredibly grateful to DACA for allowing him to build his career as a nurse.

Yet without action from the incoming Congress, these young immigrants and hundreds of thousands more live in limbo. Challenges to DACA continue to make their way through the court system, with Republican attorneys general asking yet another federal judge in Texas to rule the program unlawful.

Such a ruling would lead to a déjà-vu-all-over-again feeling for DACA recipients.

DACA recipients and Americans who count on them as neighbors, co-workers and family members can take some heart in the incoming Biden administration.

In Alejandro Mayorkas, President-elect Biden wants to put the right person in place to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas’ law enforcement credentials, along with time leading U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — including overseeing the rollout of DACA — make him the ideal person to balance compassion with security as our immigration system is reoriented to once again serve the interests of all Americans.

But ultimately, this comes down to Congress. Will the incoming Biden administration be able to work with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to make a permanent legislative solution for Dreamers a top priority?

At an event earlier this month, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said: “I personally think the most important starting point is DACA. … I believe we need to take action and give these young men and women the certainty they deserve.” 

And Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., long a champion of a bipartisan legislative solution, sounded the right tone earlier this year: “We can solve this problem once and for all — change the law and do it in the right way on a bipartisan basis in the Senate.”

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A congressional solution would put a stop to the rinse-and-repeat cycle of lawsuits and offer long-awaited certainty to DACA recipients, allowing them to continue innovating and contributing to their employers and communities in ways that move our entire country forward. Such a solution would provide stability not only to Dreamers themselves, but also to the family members, friends, colleagues and employers who depend on them.

A bipartisan solution for Dreamers also would bode well for other challenges that lie ahead. Agriculture and food processing employ more than 1 million immigrants who are essential workers. Nearly 20% of manufacturing workers are foreign-born. The list goes on and on — and Congress needs to address immigration broadly to encourage growth in American jobs.

Many of the DACA recipients have no memory of the countries where they were born, don’t speak the languages of those countries, and have grown up as Americans in every way. Some have defended our nation in the armed forces and many now hold critical jobs. They are an asset to our nation of immigrants — not a liability.

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Very few people in America think the immigration system works for them. So let’s work together to find new solutions, new ways to serve the national interest and ensure that all of us in the United States, regardless of where we were born, can live up to our fullest potential.

Friday’s court decision on DACA and the action by the Trump administration this week amount to a small, tenuous step in that direction. If we want to think big, that’s up to Congress.  

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