Budgeting Time for Immigration

January 29, 2018

By Heather Stewart

When President Trump terminated DACA in September he set in motion a series of events that has led to crisis and hardship for individual DACA recipients. With each day that passes, more DACA recipients lose their status and protection. It is a ticking time bomb of the administration’s own making, but rather than engage Congress in a bipartisan negotiation aimed at resolving this specific issue, the Trump administration has consistently upped the ante. With less than three weeks to finalize the federal budget or risk another government shutdown, the White House is demanding a total rewrite of our immigration laws.

How did we get back to an “everything AND the kitchen sink” approach to immigration reform? Dreamers are facing deportation from the only country they have ever known, and the majority of Americans do not want that to happen. Some politicians are attempting to use the support for permanent relief for Dreamers as leverage to push through restrictive, punitive, and ill-conceived comprehensive immigration reform.

Act now on Connecting Our World to urge Congress to provide permanent relief for Dreamers.

Congress is stuck in a cycle that must end. While the country needs thoughtful and systematic reform of its immigration laws, we cannot do this in the context of crisis. Immigration policy has become so contentious that people do not trust each other to have a reasonable debate. Past attempts at comprehensive immigration reform were doomed, in part, by a fear that we had to tackle everything at once because Congress couldn’t trust itself to commit to a prolonged discussion on immigration. Many people feared that once an immigration bill passed—any immigration bill—there would be no will left to continue reforms.

After repeated efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package, Congress moved to the idea of “sequencing” reforms; creating smaller packages of reform on particular issues and passing them in a successive order. The end of DACA has put this idea of sequencing to the test—and so far, people aren’t playing by the rules.

The Dream Act represents the sequencing philosophy. Pass a bill that addresses one significant—and now urgent—problem with the understanding that this is a start, not an end to the immigration conversation. It is widely believed that the Dream Act would pass the House and Senate if brought to a vote. Congressional leadership has been unwilling to do this, so a strategic decision was made to attach Dreamer relief to must-pass legislation funding the federal government. To placate the Trump administration and other immigration hardliners, billions of dollars for border enforcement was proposed as a package deal.

People of good faith disagree as to whether Dreamer relief for border security is a balanced approach. However, once the concession was made, the demands for more and more punitive changes in exchange for the Dream Act or its equivalent began anew. Most recently, the White House Framework on Immigration and Border Security argues that relief for Dreamers should be package with a counterweight of billions of dollars for border security, the end the diversity lottery program (50,000 green cards to people from low-levels of immigration to the United States), and the decimation of the family-based immigration program, eliminating the opportunity for U.S. citizens to petition for their adult children, siblings, and parents.

While that draconian proposal is unlikely to have support in the Senate, it is very similar to the legislation most recently offered up by immigration hardliners in the House. Representative Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) proposed counterweight to the Dream Act is a 414 page-long buffet of restrictionist provisions. The so-called Secure America’s Future (SAF) Act (H.R. 4760) attempts to rewrite broad swathes of immigration law to punish sanctuary cities, create a new category of agricultural workers with no rights, end the diversity lottery, limit family-based immigration to minor children and spouses of U.S. citizens, and reduce legal immigration by 25%. The bill veers drastically from the current law by eliminating the employment-based immigration system for new “merit-based” system. The employment-based system is not perfect, but replacing it with an entirely new system untested in the U.S. economy requires more than 3 weeks of consideration. Debate is needed to define the phrase “merit-based immigration.” While it speaks to an American core value of meritocracy, this bill defines it in opposition to another core value: family.

A different approach, and one that is far more promising, is the bipartisan House bill, Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act (H.R. 4797), introduced by Representatives Will Hurd (R-TX), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Jeff Denham (R-CA), and 50 original cosponsors. The USA Act forges a compromise for Dreamers and border security. The bill protects Dreamers from deportation, allows them to work legally and to travel outside the country, and puts them on a path to green card status. Rather than throw billions of dollars at the border, it proposes solutions to border security that have garnered appreciable support from border community advocates. The bill directs the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive border security plan, invest in ports of entry infrastructure, deploy technology at the border, and improve the immigration court backlog through hiring additional immigration court judges and personnel.

Even as the Dream Act/border/legal immigration fight goes on, other Members of Congress are laying down proposals for different aspects of immigration reform. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have introduced the Immigration Innovation (I Squared) Act of 2018 (S. 2344), updated from versions introduced in past Congresses. I Squared would improve U.S competitiveness for highly-educated and talented individuals who help create jobs for Americans and support U.S. innovation. Reforms to temporary and permanent high-skilled immigration are a key component to improving our immigration system and must be part of a bigger debate about improving the immigration system to reflect the needs and values of our country. It would be a mistake, however, to try to leverage this bill as another condition on passing the Dream Act.

Americans care deeply about immigration; we want a system that works and is fair. Immigration has become such a visible part of the American political debate that it is foolish to think that we can resolve all issues at once. It is particularly irresponsible to attempt to rewrite major sections of immigration law in 3 weeks and unconscionable to put it on the backs of Dreamers.

Pass permanent relief for Dreamers that leads to citizenship with a balanced approach. Begin the sequence of reforms. The demands for further immigration reform will not stop with ending the threat of deportation for Dreamers. Neither should Congress.


Heather Stewart is the counsel and director of immigration policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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