By Meagan Beckmeyer
The weeks following the three-day government shutdown on January 20th, 2018, which marked the 1-year anniversary of the Trump administration, have been as [in]action-packed as ever. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is at the top of the current agenda and Congress has twice failed to pass a budget deal that addresses it. In the meantime, DACA was the cause of two historic milestones: one of the longest House floor speeches made by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that addressed DACA, and the shortest shutdown in U.S. history on February 9th. With this ongoing conversation, media coverage, Trump’s pillars of immigration reform, and continued Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations of Dreamers and DACA recipients, it’s critical to understand and sift through the jargon and legal terminology, while understanding the complications of immigration reform that have keep the country at a stalemate and the racist undertones of some of the current and proposed policies.
First, let’s clarify between Dreamers and DACA recipients: Dreamers, as they’re commonly known, are young people who were brought to the United States as minors without documentation who also meet certain other criteria. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, first brought to Congress in 2001, offered a pathway to citizenship for these young people. After failing to pass in 2010, it was replaced with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, which allowed Dreamers who meet certain criteria to apply for work permits.
The number of Dreamers in the United States far exceeds the number of those eligible for DACA – according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), as of September 2017, there are approximately 3.6 million Dreamers and only 1.3 million of them are eligible for DACA. While a March 5th expiration date has been hovering over DACA, District Judge William Alsup of San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction ( a court order) on January 10th to resume the DACA program, forcing the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to continue accepting renewals and new applications.
In spite of Judge Alsup’s injunction, Trump is still pressuring Congress to pass new immigration policy to replace DACA based on the four pillars of immigration he introduced in his January 30th State of the Union address. Here’s a summary of Trump’s pillars from his speech:
- Provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who would otherwise qualify for DACA
- $23 billion to “secure the border”
- End the visa lottery and switch to a merit-based system
- Limit family reunification to spouses and minor children (you’ve probably heard this called “chain migration”)
These pillars do not come close to the immigration reform bill a bipartisan group of legislators – the Gang of Eight – proposed in 2013 nor what Democrats and Republicans still call for in a clean DREAM Act. Now let’s dig a little deeper to understand what this really means.
Pillar 1: Provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who would otherwise qualify for DACA
Now that you can delineate between DACA recipients and Dreamers, this is pretty simple math. In its current form, one of DACA’s key problems is the eligibility restriction that fails to provide a path to permanent residence for the 2.4 million Dreamers ineligible for the program. Trump’s proposal only expands eligibility to 600,000 Dreamers, who would still need to meet DACA requirements. This is still far from expanded protection that immigrant rights groups, advocates, and lawmakers seek for the other 1.8 million Dreamers, many of whom have only known the US as their home.
Pillar 2: $23 billion in funding to “secure the border”
Following up on his campaign promise, Trump is dead-set on building a wall along the Mexico border. On Monday, February 12th, he released his $4.4 trillion 2019 budget proposal that includes $23 billion for border security, $18 billion of which is allocated to the wall. That’s how much Obama spent on overall immigration enforcement in 2013. Because Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto repeatedly refused to fund the wall, Trump is determined to put the cost burden on American taxpayers, all while plunging the US into further debt. Seeing the wall as one of Trump’s fruitless solutions to control gang activity, Democrats have pretty much bowed out of the debate to shift focus to more meaningful aspects of reform.
Pillar 3: End the visa lottery and switch to a merit-based system
Believe it or not, ending the Diversity Visa “lottery” has bipartisan support. It’s an outdated program that has actually created more problems than it solves by allotting 50,000 visas annually, with fewer requirements, to residents of countries with low emigration rates to the US. There is relative lack of selectivity – the program blocks people with criminal backgrounds or links to terrorist groups but not much else – which has led to backlogs of otherwise traditionally qualified applicants based on family ties, language proficiency, and skill.
The latter portion of this pillar, however, is problematic. On the surface, a merit-based system sounds reasonable. Of course we want to attract people who will be positive contributors to our society and economy! But that’s not what this means. This means restricting visas to highly skilled individuals (largely in STEM fields) who speak English and have a healthy bank account. It leaves out millions of low-skilled workers that are the backbone of our economy and are more likely to be from countries like Mexico, Honduras, Syria or Ethiopia than from countries like Norway or Sweden. This is a major workforce that is going to be nearly impossible to replace and cultivate if we continue deporting people and restrict immigration as the population grows.
Pillar 4: Limit family reunification to spouses and minor children
You’re probably more familiar with the term “chain migration” than the proper term, family reunification. Immigration opponents frame chain migration as the act of a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) who in turn sponsors visas for all of his/her family members, including cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Grandma gets a visa! Your second cousin gets a visa! Everyone gets a visa!
That’s not how the family-based visa programs actually work. While there are no limits on visas for immediate relatives (spouses, minor children, and parents) of U.S. citizens, there are limits on extended relatives of U.S. citizens and immediate relatives of LPR’s. “Family preference” categories outline covered relatives and the number of visas allotted to each category, in addition to country caps. Limiting family reunification to spouses and minor children might solve, for some, the backlog in the system, but it doesn’t actually reinforce family values and opportunities intended by these programs nor improve efficiency of processing family visas. And it’s racist! Limiting so-called chain migration is Trump’s way of reducing the number of non-white people that are allowed to enter the country.
Given all of this information and the long and complex history of US immigration policy, you can see why Congress has been at an impasse for over a decade. There is a lot of confusing jargon that obfuscates the difference between actionable and inclusive immigration policies and those intended to stymie legal immigration that are fundamentally racist. The depiction of immigrants as drug dealers and gang members who come here to be a drain on society is simply absurd. Immigrants are a critical part of our foundation, our society, and our economy. They are also humans. As constituents, voters, and human beings, it’s imperative for us to better understand the immigration conversation and push lawmakers to draft new policies that reflect our values. My hope is that you come away from this with a baseline understanding of immigration reform and are prepared to handle conversations with your representatives, friends, and family. Even though the March 5 deadline is murky, Congress still needs to act.