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Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant youth have been speaking out publicly about the fear and indignity of living under constant threat of arrest and deportation in the only land they’ve ever called “home.” And for over decade they’ve been asking Congress to pass a bill ? the DREAM Act – that would allow them to stay, get legalized, and become productive, tax-paying citizens.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer Jose Antonio Vargas, a thirty-year-old native of the Philippines who migrated illegally with his parents at age 15, has just added his voice to this chorus. A crack reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, and later with the Washington Post, Vargas has recounted his fifteen year plight in an extraordinary 6,000 word article published two Sundays ago in the New York Times Magazine, followed by major appaearances on ABC’s Nightline and Good Morning America. The controversry is only just beginning, and with any luck could help reignite the nation’s smoldering immigration debate.
Because Vargas has gone to such great lengths to publicize his story and to provide a detailed account of the many ways that he’s managed to avoid detection – and in fact, to break the law – for over fifteen years, his revelations could have serious repercussions. And not just for him, but for others who may assisted him along the way. At least one senior editor at The Washington Post has admitted that he knew about Vargas’s legal status and agreed to keep that fact concealed, even while assigning and publishing Vargas’s news stories on the plight of other illegal immigrants.
Vargas, in fact, first offered his “self-expos?” to the Post, for which he no longer works, but the paper refused to publish it, sensing that it may be implicated, morally if not legally, in his deception. The Post now says it’s conducting an “internal review” of the matter, and Vargas’s former editor, Peter Perl, could well be fired. Other journalists who knew Vargas but didn’t know about his legal status have also begun weighing in, mostly with sympathy for his plight but some with genuine concern ? and in a few cases, anger – over the ethical implications of his actions.
Immigration specialists say between 800,000 and 2 million former youth like Vargas – out of a total of 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the country – would gain legal status under the Dream Act. And with the continuing deadlock over a broader comprehensive immigration reform bill, President Obama and Senate Democrats have concentrated on trrying to get the measure passed as a “stand-alone” bill. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama said the country couldn’t afford to dispense with talents of educated immigrant youth, regardless of their legal status, at a time of growing economic competitiveness with China and other nations.
But Republicans, who are staunchly opposed to an “amnesty” in any form, have consistently rejected that argument. So, too, have a solid core of conservative Democrats who represent states or districts where opposition to illegal immigration ? and “amnesty” – is strong.
The difficulties in getting even a partial measure like DREAM passed in the current immigration policy cclimate were highlighted last December when Senate majority leader Harry Reid tried to pass the measure during a “lame-duck session,” a legislative maneuver that allows recently defeated members of Congress to vote on bills before the incoming Congress is seated.
Even with a near-filibuster proof majority, Reid couldn’t muster more than 55 votes for DREAM, five shy of the 60 needed to defeat a Republican threat to block the bill. Reid even lost 5 key Democratic votes that could have provided the margin of difference.
But that hasn’t deterred DREAM activists, who have mounted yet another grassroots pressure campaign on Obama to use his executive power to grant them legal status. The campaign’s been backed by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Democrat’s immigration reform champion in the House, who’s even threatened to organize a Latino boycott of the 2012 elections if Obama refuses to comply.
Officially, Obama says only Congress can pass immigration reform. But last week, in a little noticed move that’s evidently part of his 2012 outreach campaign to Latinos – and that seemed to anticipate Vargas’s expose – the White House quietly released a memo to the Department of Homeland Security that all but ensures that prospective beneficiaries of the DREAM Act - including Vargas – won’t be deported, even if the DREAM Act legislation formally legalizing them remains stalled.
The memo stops well short of conferring upon the DREAM beneficiaries the status known as “Deferred Enforced Departure,” which Democratic and Republican presidents alike have used in the past to grant prospective deportees a three-year “stay.” Obama considered extending DED status to the DREAM beneficiaries in a confidential optons paper prepared at his behest by senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security. But Republicans learned of the proposal last summer, they branded it a “back-door amnesty.” Obama was forced to retreat, saying that the DED memo was just an “options paper,” and that he would sign no such order.
But latest White House memo may have much the same practical effect. On paper, it directs local judges in the 26 federal immigration districts to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in deportation cases involving the DREAM beneficiaries ? in effect, asking those judges to defer their deportation indefinitely. Even now. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officiers do not make it a priority to detain prospective DREAM beneficiaries, but those caught up in local enforcement programs like Secure Communities still need to appear before a judge, and in theory, could be deported. The latest Obama memo ? which constitutes a de facto executive order, without formally binding judges – makes that prospect even more unlikely.
Pro-DREAM activists are far from satisfied with Obama’s action, however. They note that the constant threat of detention, and deportation causes enormous anxiety, and the need to hire a lawyer and actually show up in court is costly and disruptive, in part, because deportation hearings are often held in a state different from the one in which the immigrant now lives ?sometimes on the other side of the country, in fact. And if the judge rules against you ? still a distinct possibility, Obama memo or not – you can be taken into custody on the spot, and deported within a week.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the original co-sponsors of the DREAM Act, has promised to re-introduce the measure in the 113th Congress, even in the face of GOP hostility, if only to further embarrass the Republicans for opposing legislation that many consider a common-sense solution.
But it’s also possible that as part of an evolving congressional deal on workplace enforcement, Congress could end up striking some kind of deal on the DREAM Act ?probably not the original rather expansive legislation ? anyone under 40 who came as a youth can get a green card – but a stripped down version that would limit the pool of prospective beneficiaries, and some of the rights they might enjoy once legalized
In the meantime, activists in a growing number of states are pushing “DREAM-like” legislative initiatives that would allow illegal immigrant students to qualify for in-state tuition and other benefits normally according to native-born applicants. The latest victory for the DREAMERs came in Maryland in May, where the Governor signed a tuition bill over the objections of Republican legislators. In response, grassroots anti-immigration groups have been gathering signatures to place a referendum on the ballot this November that would overturn the Governor’s decision. So far, they’ve gathered 100,000, with just 55,000 needed to qualify.
Vargas, for his part, says he’s planning to establish a new web portal, to attract more high-level support for DREAM, and to keep his own case in the public eye. Already his former school principal and superintendent have signed on. Continuing to go public will surely help protect him from conservatives demanding his head. But it won’t get him hired anywhere, unless DREAM actually passes.
With any luck Vargas’ noble sacrifice could well pave the way.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org