Like most Americans, I have watched with great concern the devastation that Hurricane Harvey left in its aftermath. Despite the severe destruction in Houston, we have also witnessed the resilience of the American people. Neighbor helping neighbor, family helping family, Americans come together in times of tragedy. We have witnessed many acts of heroism over the past two weeks and one such act surrounds the efforts of paramedic Jesus Contreras who spent multiple days rescuing Houston residents from the dangerous flood waters. Contreras was doing his job just like thousands of other first responders. However, Contreras who was brought to the United States at the age of 6, is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which allows for a level of amnesty for undocumented children brought into the United States illegally by their parents.
This very week that Americans are coming together to help with the clean-up of Hurricane Harvey and prepare for the potential catastrophic impacts of Hurricane Irma in Florida, President Trump announced his intention to end the DACA program, thereby putting hero, Jesus Contreras’ future in jeopardy.
Established by Executive Order by President Obama, DACA requires these individuals to meet strict criteria in order to receive deferral of deportation such as age restrictions, requirements for continuous years residing in the U.S., education requirements, a clean legal record and more. The DACA population in the United States is more than 800,000 young people. President Trump has given Congress six months to legalize the program, with no clear indication as to the consequences of inaction.
For decades, presidents from both parties have supported versions of immigration reform but achieved only limited legislative results. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, said “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” This belief became a reality in 1986 when Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The new law allowed nearly three million immigrants living in the United States illegally to gain a path to legalization as long as they have been living in the country continuously for four years.
While this was a push in the right direction, it did not provide security for the spouses and children of those who qualified. President George H. W. Bush implemented the “family fairness” policy, which did just that. Families of undocumented immigrants who qualified for the IRCA were allowed to apply for an extension to remain in the United States. His advocacy for undocumented immigrants and their families may have been the reason in 2000 his son, President George W. Bush, won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote.
But immigration reform has gone from being bipartisan to downright toxic for elected Republicans. In 2001 Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) co-sponsored the Dream Act to protect young undocumented immigrant children. Six years later, despite support from President Bush, a bipartisan Senate filibuster ended the legislation. Another attempt in 2010 saw Dream legislation pass the House, but fell five votes shy in the Senate. In 2012, President Obama bypassed Congress with an executive order, despite its vulnerability to future administrations.
Protecting undocumented children is not a party issue but rather a people issue. A recent poll found that 78 percent of registered voters, including 73 percent of Trump voters, support DACA and giving those who qualify, commonly referred to as the “Dreamers,” a chance to remain in the country permanently. The DACA program is an embodiment of the American Dream. Many DACA individuals have known no country but the United States. They have worked hard to assimilate and create tremendous success for themselves.
DACA not only benefits these dreamers but also our economy. According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, ending DACA would remove an estimated 685,000 workers from the labor force and create a $460.3 billion loss in U.S. GDP over the next decade. In Massachusetts alone, the state would see a $606.8 million decrease in annual GDP with the loss of this program.
The United States was founded on the dream of a better life. From the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock to the countless individuals who passed through Ellis Island, our nation has stood tall as a melting pot of immigrant cultures. I don’t often quote Ronald Reagan but in his final speech as President he said, “I think it’s fitting to leave one final thought, an observation about a country which I love. It was stated best in a letter I received not long ago. A man wrote me and said: “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”
DACA is now in the hands of Congress – the place it needs to be if we want to fully and finally address the predicament of these young people. There seems to be support among both parties for a solution. It’s time for Congress to revisit the DREAM Act or at least cast real votes to match their compassionate rhetoric toward dreamers. America has a place for Dreamers like Jesus Contreras. He personifies the American spirit.