Robb: Congress does its job to save 'dreamers'
On immigration, the election of Donald Trump is causing Congress to consider doing something radical and rare: actually legislating.
So, what has stirred our esteemed solons to dust off the ancient art of passing a bill? The fate of so-called "dreamers," illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
President Obama provided these young adults an administrative amnesty. Those pursuing an education, or having at least a high-school degree, could apply for what amounts to temporary legal status, including the ability to legally work, that was indefinitely renewable.
The Obama administration claimed that it was exercising prosecutorial discretion in creating this program, but that was always a ruse. Obama was creating a new immigration category, which is the prerogative of Congress.
Obama said he had to act because Congress wasn’t. But there is nothing in the Constitution that says that, if Congress doesn’t act, the legislative authority defaults to the president.
Trump said he would repeal Obama’s administrative amnesty for dreamers. And that has bestirred some members of Congress to actually do some work assigned them by the Constitution rather than just pontificating for a living.
A bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Lindsey Graham would give those granted temporary legal status by the Obama program statutory sanction for three years and allow new applicants.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has joined that bill, but also offered a temporary fix of his own that he says better “threads the needle” on the issue. In addition to codifying and extending the temporary legal status for dreamers, his bill would require the deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes within 90 days. Funding for additional temporary lawyers and judges to make that possible is included.
Some threading of the needle is probably necessary. Amnesty advocates asserted that the changing demographics in the country made it impossible for a Republican who was a hardliner on immigration to get elected president. But one just did. Some acceptance of that political reality is probably a prerequisite for action.
My guess is that Flake’s bill doesn’t go far enough in that direction, even for a stopgap measure. At a minimum, some kind of sanction for so-called sanctuary states and cities that refuse to honor federal detention requests for criminal illegal immigrants probably has to be included. And perhaps additional funding for officers to search for those already released.
The needle also probably needs to be threaded on a true fix for dreamers that includes permanent legal status and a path to citizenship.
Presumably, a tough immigration enforcement bill will be forthcoming from the Trump administration. Politically, this is what would be a sensible combination.
The key to enforcement is to make the use of the federal electronic verification system for work eligibility, E-Verify, mandatory for all employers. That would effectively lock illegal workers out of the formal economy, eliminating the principal draw for illegal immigration.
Add whatever is necessary to say that border enforcement has been augmented and a wall of sorts built. And then season the enforcement provisions with a permanent fix for dreamers.
Amnesty advocates won’t like that, claiming it divides the immigrant community.
I favor a general amnesty for those here illegally who have otherwise been law-abiding. But the argument for amnesty for those who consciously broke the country’s immigration laws is much tougher than the argument to provide it to those brought here illegally as children without culpability.
Amnesty for dreamers shouldn’t be held hostage to amnesty for those with the harder case to make.
If Congress is going to get serious about legislating for children brought here illegally as children, the snobbery in the proposals should be set aside. The dreamer studying in university to be a professional political crank isn’t more worthy than the high-school dropout working in construction, landscaping, manufacturing or cleaning services.
Neither was culpable in breaking our immigration laws, neither really knows another country, and the hard-working laborer is arguably more valuable to the country than the budding political crank.
The political preening should be set aside as well.
The narrative that Congress has to come galloping to the rescue because the country’s racists elected a cold-hearted meanie as president is simultaneously infuriating, pathetic and amusing.
Deciding the legal status of dreamers has been the job of Congress all along.
Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic.