UNC student left Mexico at 6 months old. Now his American dreams are threatened.
Unable to reach consensus on immigration-related legislation, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have largely punted on the issue in recent months, especially on the once-searing-hot question of what to do with people brought into the country illegally as children.
A survey of North Carolina leaders found near unanimous support for allowing those immigrants, ones who meet specific criteria laid out by President Barack Obama in 2012, to become U.S. citizens. But, highlighting the difficulty in creating policy, some had different ideas about what that pathway should look like.
Sixty North Carolina leaders in education, politics, business and advocacy were asked open-ended questions about immigration as part of The Influencer Series for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. The surveys were sent in the days before Hurricane Florence brought its devastation to many parts of the state. Thirty-eight participants responded.
Thirty said DACA recipients should have a pathway to citizenship, while seven agreed but qualified their response. One person did not answer the question. No one said no.
“Absolutely. Every bone in the bodies of these young people is American,” said Michael Marsicano, of Charlotte, the president and CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas. “... The time has come to create the pathway now and work through other immigration disagreements separately.”
Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said he favored a pathway “as long as immigration enforcement is implemented through strong border protection and DACA recipients get in line behind those trying to gain entry legally from throughout the world.”
Paul Cuadros, an associate professor of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill who writes extensively on the Latino community, said the United States needs a “revolutionary approach” to immigration reform and said an enforcement-only approach will not stop unauthorized migration.
“The U.S. should fulfill its promise to grant status to DACA recipients and include them into the family of America. DACA recipients have not only earned this status but will greatly add to our society and life,” Cuadros said.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was a 2012 program put in place by Obama to shield recipients from deportation. He called it a “temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”
More than 689,000 people had registered for the program as of Sept. 4, 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. North Carolina has more than 25,000 DACA recipients, who must have completed high school or service in the military, must meet residency criteria and have, at worst, a very limited criminal record, including no felonies. Almost 80 percent of recipients are from Mexico and nearly 90 percent are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Peru.
A Gallup poll in June found that 83 percent of Americans favor allowing immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children the chance to become citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time. Of the 83 percent, 40 percent strongly favored it.
But six years after Obama’s designation and despite that popularity, the program’s fate is unsettled. President Donald Trump made curbing illegal immigration one of his top campaign vows, and his administration announced plans to unwind the program last year. The announcement set off a flurry of court cases and congressional action.
Trump gave Congress a March deadline to act on DACA. In February, the Senate voted on four separate immigration proposals to deal with a host of issues, including a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and funding Trump’s long-promised southern border wall. None of the proposals garnered the 60 votes necessary under Senate rules.
Several courts have stayed — or put on hold — the Trump administration’s decision, and without time pressure on Congress, the fate of DACA has faded as a pressing issue.
“It continues to be the case that individuals who have or have previously had DACA can apply to renew it,” according to the National Immigration Law Center.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy which separated children from their asylum-seeking parents at the U.S.-Mexico border has garnered much more attention in recent months.
We also asked how the government should handle those families.
“With dignity,” Raleigh restaurateur Ashley Christensen said. “It’s unconscionable to imprison small children by themselves, and have no plan or protocol for reunion after the fact.”
“Humanely,” said Frank Emory, a Charlotte lawyer. “Even if officials determine that the applicant is not eligible for asylum, we must treat them and their children as human beings.”
“They should be returned to home country as families, like most nations do when illegal immigration occurs,” McCrory said.
With attention on family separation at the border, DACA recipients grow older in the United States. In 2012, those under 31 qualified as long as they were brought to the United States before age 16. The oldest among those qualified under Obama’s order are 37 now.
“These people came to our nation as infants or as young children with their families through no choice of their own. They are Americans except for being born here. They grew up in the U.S., were educated here and are contributing to our nation,” said Larry Wooten, president of the NC Farm Bureau.
Said Bob Morgan, president and CEO of the Charlotte Chamber: “These young people want to be Americans and they are here already. We should embrace their diversity and contributions to our society.”
Former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, said a path to citizenship should be “limited to those who have previously demonstrated love of America with honorable contributions.” Martin described his view of the politics at the heart of the debate: “Many Democrats strongly favor blanket citizenship for all illegal aliens as a major resource of votes for Democrats. Republicans strongly oppose blanket citizenship for illegal aliens for the same reason.”
Ric Elias, a Puerto Rican and CEO of Red Ventures, said “using the lives and futures of innocent young people to further partisan agendas defies common decency. ... When you put partisan politics aside and see this for what it is — a human rights issue — then it becomes clear that our failure to act on their behalf isn’t just a legislative failure, it’s a moral failure.”
We also asked the North Carolina leaders what is the single most important thing that needs to happen in immigration reform. Here are some of their answers:
• “There must be a federal solution on immigration reform. States cannot have 50 solutions. The Congress has neglected this responsibility for years,” said former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.
• “All U.S. borders must be secured against illegal entry. Only then can we begin the process of deciding how to humanely deal with those who have already illegally entered the country,” said Paul Valone, president of the gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina.
• “The single most important thing we can do to address effective immigration reform would be to find a way to beef up our guest worker program. That way, America gets the talent it needs and the immigrant gets the opportunity to provide for their family,” said Kit Cramer, the president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
• “Simplify the path to citizenship. Consider quotas, based on availability of infrastructure in places immigrants ask to live. Prioritize according to skills needed in specific areas. Consider returning to times when immigrants needed a sponsor in this country,” said Joan Zimmerman, Southern Shows, Inc., co-founder.
About the series
This is the latest in a series of surveys The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun will conduct with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. This report focused on the issue of immigration.
Next week, look for a report on the balance of power in state government. We need your voice to guide our coverage and direct future questions we ask the Influencers, including our upcoming report on the environment. Please fill out the form below.