The outlook for immigrant rights advocates looked increasingly bleak this past week, with millions of lives slung precariously in the balance of a GOP legislative volley between two bills up for a vote next week in the House, while the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy played out along the border in Texas and, more recently, San Diego. Moderate Republicans from California spun the less draconian bill as a “compromise” that would provide a permanent path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” — young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children — and an end to the practice of separating children from their migrant parents at the border, which has drawn global condemnation.
At a press conference organized by the Coalition for Humane and Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) on Friday, June 15, — the six-year anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — a handful of young beneficiaries of the program entreated GOP leaders to end the limbo they’ve inhabited since Trump decided to phase out DACA and demand any future provision be tied to funding a border wall. Theirs were powerful voices, however mired in the chaotic and prolonged fight over immigration in advance of the November election, in which several vulnerable Republicans — some in California with significant Latino constituencies — face re-election.
Paulina, 26, a DACA recipient who has cerebral palsy, passionately recounted how the program has affected her life.
“First and foremost, DACA has allowed me to work and be a productive member of society, and has improved my health tremendously. Because of DACA I’m able to see doctors who are specialized in cerebral palsy, and my daily life has improved,” she said.
“We need a permanent solution. DACA is on the verge of collapsing again. And I mean, it’s been six years — it’s been too long. We can’t continue to prove our humanity time and time again.”
Another DACA recipient, Ana, offered a message for the GOP:
“You promised us a solution but all you have given us is punishment — like proposals that rip children away from their mothers. Punishment like uprooting our parents from the places they call home,” she said, criticizing any legislation built on “a foundation of cruelty and dehumanization.”
But by then the ground had already shifted. Donald Trump told reporters Friday morning that he would not support the more moderate bill — a chaotic missive that sent the media scrambling before it was amended later in the day to express support for both bills.
CHIRLA executive director Angelica Salas decried a “lack of courage from politicians,” lamenting the recent failure of a discharge petition — a measure to compel votes on bipartisan legislation that would have protected Dreamers — by a mere two votes.
“Because (House Speaker Paul) Ryan … would do everything in his power to dissuade those two from joining politicians of good will who want a real solution for these young people, a real solution for this country,” she said. “Instead, the ‘compromise’ continues to put forward policies that seek to penalize young people and their families. They want to move forward in a quasi-legal status for these young people, build the border wall, continue the separation of families. Don’t be fooled. … It continues the separation of families, it continues investing in mass deportation.”
In an email, Emily Carlin, a spokeswoman for Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), a moderate Republican who supports protecting Dreamers and led efforts behind the discharge petition, disagreed.
“The compromise bill provides a permanent solution for all (1.8 million) Dreamers with a pathway to citizenship. It also guarantees funding for border security and closes loopholes to prevent future flows of undocumented immigrants. The congressman strongly supports keeping families together and this bill fixes family separation with changes to keep families together,” Carlin wrote.
The “Border Security and Immigration Reform Act” — Ryan’s compromise bill — makes DACA contingent on $25 billion to build Trump’s border wall, with a caveat to cancel the program if that funding dries up. It would end the diversity lottery and cut family-based immigration in favor of more employment- and merit-based visas. The bill’s DACA solution is a six-year renewable “non-immigrant status,” which, according to Niels Frenzen, law professor and director of USC’s Immigration Clinic, does not in and of itself lead to lawful permanent resident status like a green card or citizenship.
“My read of it is this six-year renewable status — call it a visa … arguably it’s an expansion of the number of people currently in the DACA program. … It would enable those individuals to arguably benefit from other paths to lawful permanent resident status,” Frenzen said, citing things like marriage and skilled employment.
It’s only by comparison with the more conservative “Securing America’s Future Act,” by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), that Ryan’s seems like a reasonable compromise, Frenzen said.
“The Ryan bill is bad, it’s got some things in it that will help some people, but overall it’s harmful to the country and certainly to immigrants. The Goodlatte bill is … an incredibly draconian bill that, if it was to become law, would basically provide for the mass detention of immigrants on a scale this country has never seen before. It would criminalize millions of people in this country, just for the fact of being present in the U.S. without legal status,” he said.
For DACA, critics argue, it offers precarious, short-term protection from deportation for a small number, leaves out those who were never able to apply, and criminalizes poverty for recipients.
“It's like a wish list of some of the most draconian anti-immigrant proposals for decades,” Frenzen said.
He would know. He’s been practicing immigration law since 1985, when he started representing Haitian “boat people.”
“That was one of the 20th century’s low points in the immigration arena — it was a mass detention of poor black people fleeing for their lives. There’ve been some really ugly periods over the past 30 to 40 years, and 150 years ago. But we’re in one of those periods right now.”
While Frenzen acknowledges there is “some language” in the compromise bill that would restrict family separation under certain circumstances, he notes it would not likely have any effect on the separation of kids from parents being criminally prosecuted for coming to the United States — a practice based on existing law but enforced with vicious zeal by the Trump administration.
In addition to the criminalization of migrants — charged with illegal entry and funneled into federal prisons, instead of detention centers — Salas noted an obscene twist. “They’re giving them a felony for smuggling their own children. … This is a family unit seeking asylum and protection. … This is a horrendous, horrendous practice, happening every day to thousands of people.”
Frenzen acknowledged the Ryan compromise would put some limits on the practice of separating children from parents detained when they present themselves at the border for asylum. But, he added, “I don’t think there’s anything in the compromise bill to prevent (the government) from doing zero-tolerance crime prosecutions or detaining asylum seekers.”
In an emailed statement, the office of Rep. Steven Knight (R-Palmdale), original co-sponsor of the bipartisan USA Act and signer of the discharge petition, said his top two priorities continue to be improved security along the southern border and a permanent solution for DACA recipients.
“The current compromise bill is still in negotiations and he is continuing to work with his colleagues to ensure this important issue is properly addressed,” the statement said.
Congressman Denham’s statement was more assertive, maintaining “all options — including queen-of-the-hill and the discharge petition — currently remain in play. Congressman Denham is confident we will deliver results on both.”
In March Denham rallied Republicans behind a “queen-of-the-hill” measure, a somewhat obscure tactic to bring four immigration bills, including the two bipartisan measures and “an immigration bill of Speaker Ryan’s choice,” to the floor, but the maneuver was dismissed by GOP leadership.
Requests for comment from Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) were not returned in time for publication.
If neither of the two GOP bills currently proposed in the House goes anywhere, Franzen suggests, there may still be time for some other legislation. But not much.
“The biggest thing is the midterm elections. If something isn’t happening next week, nothing is happening in July and August," he says. "The legislative quagmire will continue until after we see what happens in the elections. But certainly political pressure and legal challenges will continue throughout the summer.”
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In the meantime, DACA recipients are not giving up.
“Cuando peleamos, ganamos!” (When we fight, we win!)
Ana had another message for the GOP:
“I might not be able to vote, but thousands of youth have preregistered and rest assured that when they turn 18 and it is time to vote, they will remember who tried to separate our families.”