‘Dreamers’ Bill Stirs Partisan Fight Over Border Enforcement

  • Democrats stress need to protect young immigrants
  • GOP uses hearing to point to illegal border crossings, crime

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Legislation that would grant a path to citizenship to young immigrants brought to the U.S as children has triggered a fresh round of partisan skirmishes over border security—as the fate of a program shielding them from deportation hangs in the balance.

“If our standard on standing any immigration law is that we must have perfect compliance of all other laws, we’ll never do anything. That’s a mistake,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said at a hearing Tuesday. Still, he signaled some willingness to address Republican concerns about record numbers of migrants crossing the border with Mexico.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects young immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation, is under legal threat. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation known as the Dream Act that would enact the protections former President Barack Obama set through a 2012 executive order. A Texas federal judge could soon end DACA after a handful of states sued over the program’s legality.

The Texas case “should give us all a sense of urgency,” said John Cornyn (R-Texas), noting that Durbin has the power to hold a markup of the DREAM Act. “We’ve been talking about this issue for as long as I’ve been in the Senate.”

Some Republicans on the committee have expressed interest in protecting “Dreamers” from deportation, but have balked at moving any immigration proposals that fail to include aggressive border enforcement steps.

Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images
Nelson Portillio Guillen, apprehended May 16, 2021 in Del Rio, Texas, near the border with Mexico, raises his hand after an officer instructs a group of migrants to raise their hands if they are younger than 18.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the committee, said the proposed legislation wouldn’t do enough to address border security. Without those measures, he said, the U.S. will “find ourselves in this same situation again in 20 or 30 years.”

Durbin said he isn’t “going to ignore that reality” at the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is on track for the most encounters with border crossers in 20 years, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Two-Decade Delay

Durbin and now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) first introduced the Dream Act in the Senate 20 years ago. Durbin reintroduced it (S. 264) in March. Leon Rodriguez, who led U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Obama administration, reminded the hearing’s audience of the decades-long delay.

“We’ve reached the point where we simply need to get this done,” he said. “It is one thing to treat people as pawns in larger political debates for three months, five months, six months. It’s quite another for 20 years to have passed without a solution.”

A version of the DREAM Act is wrapped up in the broader American Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6), which the House passed in March and President Joe Biden endorsed. The Biden administration also plans to write regulations that would “preserve and fortify DACA,” according to an update to its regulatory agenda last week.

New Measures to Preserve DACA Coming Soon, USCIS Official Says

The American Psychological Association sent Durbin and Grassley a letter ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, outlining the psychological toll the constant fear of deportation takes on DACA recipients.

Proponents say DACA protections go beyond participants’ peace of mind. Such immigrants can, for the most part, only take public sector jobs at the state or local government level, for instance, under language in budget bills barring them from paid federal government employment.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), warned of “brain drain” from the federal government workforce, and noted the benefit young immigrants with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields could provide by filling that gap.

His colleague Sen.Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) introduced a bill (S. 650) that would allow “Dreamers” to work as paid interns in Congress.

Border Security

Durbin said he’s discussed protections for “Dreamers” with key senators, including Cornyn and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have introduced separate legislation to tighten border security and screen asylum seekers.

Cornyn opposes the scope of the American Dream and Promise Act, which he said would extend a pathway to citizenship for adults who entered the country illegally. Legislation should instead reserve protections for those brought across the border as children, he said Tuesday.

Biden Open to Piecemeal Immigration Bills to Speed Passage

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is a cosponsor of the Dream Act (S. 264) in the Senate, alongside Durbin, but has said he sees no bipartisan path forward on immigration legislation until the Biden administration takes steps to address what he called “chaos” at the border.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued that even conducting Tuesday’s hearing sent signals that the U.S. is soft on immigration enforcement, encouraging more border crossings.

Rodriguez, the Obama-era official, pushed back on the notion that legislation to protect DACA recipients must be linked to border security measures.

“It’s always been the wrong time, the wrong formula,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lydia O’Neal in Washington at loneal@bloombergtax.com; Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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