When the U.S. government shut down Saturday morning, one of the federal buildings that locked its doors was the Statue of Liberty.
It was a fitting symbol. For what this crisis is really about is whether America wants to abandon its identity as a nation of immigrants and deny its faith in E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
If that identity and faith still prevailed among those who control Congress, there would be no struggle over how to protect people from deportation who were illegally brought to this country as children. Those people, many of them now young, industrious adults, had been protected under President Obama’s program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. President Trump moved to end the program last September and gave Congress until March to find a way to protect immigrants enrolled in DACA, a group also known as the Dreamers, while also passing broader immigration reforms.
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Inevitably, the fate of the Dreamers has become entangled in the president’s wildly exaggerated claims of criminals pouring into the U.S. at its southern border, his demand for $18 billion to build a wall stretching thousands of miles along that border and concerns about immigrants taking American jobs even as unemployment is at a 17-year low.
A nativist theme ran through Trump’s “America First” presidential campaign and flashed again in his recent outburst against immigrants from poor, mostly black nations. Now that bias threatens the Dreamers and has prompted Democrats to oppose a government funding bill until the Dreamers are again granted protection from deportation.
The overriding issue in the DACA debate shouldn’t be that those who brought children here illegally broke the law. The top concern should be that the law itself is broken. U.S. immigration law is so convoluted and the process of legal entry so slow and narrow that those fleeing desperate circumstances or seeking a better life have little recourse but to enter the U.S. illegally. Legal entry, as a practical matter for most of them, is simply not available.
The extent of the law’s brokenness is made plain by the sea of people now living in the United States illegally either because they illegally crossed the border, overstayed their visas or were brought in as children. That population stands at 11 million. Under DACA, nearly 800,000 of them were given protections to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Now that fear is back and stronger than ever since many of those here illegally came out of the shadows and identified themselves to receive DACA protections.
The DACA issue is a compelling one for North Carolina. The state has the nation’s seventh-highest number of young, undocumented immigrants granted deferrals from deportation. Nearly 33,000 North Carolinians are currently DACA-eligible.
Steve Rao, a Morrisville Town Council member whose parents came to the U.S. from India, is a member of coalition of businesses local government leaders known as New American Economy, which promotes the value of immigration to the U.S. economy. He said immigrants make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s entrepreneurs and many of the Dreamers have shown a strong determination to succeed here.
Threatening dreamers with deportation, he said, “Goes against the grain of what made America great.”
And contrary to some claims, the Dreamers are an asset, not a burden. NEA research shows that 90 percent of the DACA eligible population 16 years and older are employed. Collectively, that population earns nearly $20 billion a year and pays more than $3 billion in federal, state and local taxes, with much of those tax payments going to support programs for which they are ineligible.
Rao notes that the delays on immigration reform are affecting more than the Dreamers. He said highly skilled immigrants in the Triangle, many from South Asia, are frustrated by their inability to gain U.S. citizenship and are going back to their native lands.
“I am seeing many of these entrepreneurs wanting to go back to India, or to set up shop in Canada, as the Trump administration has threatened to slow down immigration,” he said. “We need the next Google or SAS to grow jobs in North Carolina, not somewhere else in the world.”
Reforming the nation’s tangled immigration laws will take compromise and good will on both sides. But there’s no need to wait on what to do about the Dreamers. They are Americans in every way but on a piece of paper. It’s time they were told they’re home.