Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program to much fanfare. A memorandum outlined the contours of the initiative, noting that “[o]ur Nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner. They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Indeed, many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways.” The memorandum goes on to say that DACA “confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.” The subtext and purpose of these passages was clear two years ago and remains even more relevant today – where Congress has failed to act in support of our nation’s most deserving immigrant populations, the Executive branch will seek to do so within its own realm of influence and legal authority.
The ensuing two years has seen no shortage of action. Emboldened and galvanized by the initiation of DACA and the acute need for real reform, a number of immigrant youth and other grassroots groups have made their presence felt throughout the country by staging protests, fasts, and marches. In March 2013, the Department of Homeland Security began to offer a “provisional waiver” in an attempt to ease the burden of green card applicants who must travel to their countries of origin before obtaining their new status. A year ago, in a high water mark for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform movement, the Senate passed a bill that sought to overhaul nearly every aspect of our current immigration rubric. Since then, the waters have receded, as various House bills have stalled, reasonable measures have been inaccurately labelled as “amnesty,” and the Obama administration has signaled a cooling period for the consideration of administrative reform, leaving open the possibility that legislation might be passed by the July recess. Despite these setbacks, immigration reform advocates remain steadfast in calling on elected officials to take action.
Unfortunately, a rift has recently formed in the immigration reform community between those who agree with the Administration’s decision to forego reforms until Congress has had a chance to act, and those who believe that to pause, even for a moment, risks losing momentum. But these are not mutually exclusive concerns – advocates should encourage Congress to act in every way possible, while making their concerns and suggestions known to the Administration. One step the Obama administration should consider taking is broadening DACA to others who “have already contributed to our country in significant ways,” for example by eliminating the maximum age requirement, calling an immediate halt to deportations of low-priority immigrants, considering NYLAG’s proposal for parole in place, and creating a more refined and explicitly stated approach to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. With over 500,000 DACA applications already approved, the nation has borne witness – in a mere two years’ time, to the financial and social benefits that these young people have generated. Further investment in this valuable community would only reap further profit.