Sweeping new effort aims to protect undocumented immigrants

Legislation unveiled Friday would be a big step toward shielding DACA recipients and immigrants who came to the United States as children.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya
CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Amid harsh crackdowns by President Donald Trump’s administration, Democrats in Congress are introducing sweeping legislation to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

In an effort unveiled Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (among 117 original co-sponsors) introduced the American Hope Act, which would open a pathway to citizenship for “DREAMers” — young immigrants who arrived in the country before their 18th birthday and before December 31, 2016 who meet certain conditions.

Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative introduced by former President Barack Obama’s administration, DREAMers were granted temporary deportation relief. But Trump’s administration has targeted undocumented immigrants repeatedly, leaving many worried about the future. Addressing that fear, Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) said, is at the heart of the new legislation.

“DACA is under threat and we know that President Trump and the Attorney General, if he is still in office, will not lift a finger to defend DACA,” said Gutiérrez. “This will replace the order in the lives of these young people with chaos. It will replace the hope they have for their futures with despair. It substitutes cruelty for their aspirations and the aspirations of our entire immigrant population.”

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DACA recipients won’t be the only ones covered by the act, which also looks to protect immigrant youth more broadly. But the legislation itself is largely a response to attacks on DACA in particular. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose state is home to the second-highest number of DACA recipients after California — has threatened to sue the Trump administration if the program is not rescinded, a move that nine other states have backed.

Immigration advocates have increasingly stepped up efforts to counter threats like Paxton’s. On Wednesday, 15 activists were arrested in Austin after staging a protest outside of the Texas State Capitol. But they haven’t been alone. At least 20 state attorneys general have come out against the effort, in addition to 42 senators and numerous representatives. Many have cited the economic and social impact uprooting young immigrants would have on the country — particularly states with large immigrant populations.

With concern for undocumented immigrants growing, efforts like the legislation introduced Friday are a welcome change for activists, many of whom lauded the legislation.

“In this dangerous era of Trump and white nationalism, we are presenting a bold alternative vision for what immigration policy should look like, because for too long the right wing has been calling the shots and they are growing more brazen every day,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, Advocacy Director for United We Dream and a beneficiary of the DACA program, in a statement.

Until the legislation can be enacted, Rosas supports the continuation of DACA.

“But I need to be clear that the introduction of a bill does not protect any of us from deportation,” Rosas said. “That is why we must fight to keep the protections we have today like DACA and TPS because any gap in protection could be deadly and any gap in our ability to work would be devastating. And while we work to advance our cause, we will oppose efforts to strengthen the deportation agents.”

Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed similar sentiments.

“DACA is a constitutional program that is successful and popular on both sides of the aisle,” Praeli said. “It has enriched and touched communities and lives all across the country. In the face of an anti-immigrant agenda, Congress and President Trump have the opportunity to make the right decision and prove they are not playing politics with people’s lives.”

With the act now introduced into the House of Representatives, other efforts to protect undocumented immigrants are underway in the Senate. In a bipartisan effort introduced last week, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) are once again attempting to pass the Dream Act, which would protect DACA recipients.

“I am hoping we can find a pathway forward with President Trump,” Graham said as he announced the effort. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if the man who started his campaign talking about illegal immigration in a very tough way would be the man who started the country on a path to solving the problem?”