Robert Gehrke: Dreamers could gain certainty in 2021, but only if you vote

Robert Gehrke

Uncertainty is the norm for students wondering whether they will be returning to classes in the fall, but for a particular group of students, the picture remains even less clear.

Thousands of Utah Dreamers — young people brought here as children by their parents — were in limbo, awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether President Donald Trump can terminate the temporary protection from deportation they received during the Obama administration.

“Prior to the decision, some students had reached out to me and said if it’s a negative decision … they would not return to school this semester, because it would be uncertain if their livelihoods would be in place,” Xris Macias, the new director of the University of Utah’s Dream Center, told me.

An adverse decision would mean they could no longer work legally. Already ineligible for federal aid, it would be impossible to pay tuition, much less pay for rent or food. Not to mention they would be facing possible deportation.

To the surprise of many, including me, the court prevented Trump from rescinding the program on narrow grounds — that the administration hadn’t provided adequate justification for getting rid of the program.

The reprieve for the more than 700,000 people who have signed up for DACA, however, is temporary.

A permanent fix, as the dissenters in the court’s decision agreed, needs to come from Congress — which is a problem, given that for nearly two decades Congress hasn’t been able to solve the problem, or any problem.

There won’t be a solution in an election year. Trump and the Republicans benefit more by running on the evils of immigrants than, frankly, Democrats gain by running on the Republican evils on immigration.

But, perhaps naively, I see potential for real reform next year, more so than at any time in the past decade. It will likely take a new president.

Trump has said he wants a DACA bill, but his actions — vowing to deport Dreamers, trying to rescind the program and more recently proposing the elimination of student visas for those taking online courses (he pulled back on this) — fit neatly with his xenophobic campaign rhetoric and make one doubt his sincerity.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s immigration plan calls for a path to citizenship, not just permanent residency, for Dreamers, but acknowledges it will be up to Congress to do that. “Dreamers are Americans, and Congress needs to make it official,” he wrote last year.

That will take new people in Congress, willing to compromise and solve problems, which hinges on voters.

The good news is that a recent CBS News poll found that 85% of Americans — including 73% of Republicans — favor letting Dreamers stay in the United States.

“There is an enormous opportunity to affect positive change for the country,” Javier Palomarez, the past president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told me. “Every member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, knows that immigration is a moral and economic imperative for our country. … Finding a solution for DACA is an important first step in the broader immigration reform.”

What Palomarez doesn’t want, he said, is for Democrats to take the Hispanic vote for granted, as they have in the past. He wants concrete commitments from Biden and congressional candidates to take real action on the issue — and that’s what all voters should demand.

In Utah, Rep. Ben McAdams is the only member of the Utah delegation who voted for the American Dream and Promise Act last year. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate. His Republican opponent, Burgess Owens, said in a statement that “We need to protect our Dreamers and give them a chance at the American Dream,” adding it is the only home many have known and “we need to have empathy for them.”

Rep. Chris Stewart is a co-sponsor of the BRIDGE Act, a bipartisan bill that codifies DACA, but only for three years. His Democratic opponent, Kael Weston, told me Wednesday that he supports the act McAdams voted for last year.

Other members, like Sen. Mitt Romney, are saying the right things — “We should use this as an opportunity to finally get serious about long-term solutions” including DACA and border security — but they haven’t done much to achieve the goal.

And there are plenty of reasons why it should be our goal.

• Studies have shown that 91% of DACA recipients are employed, a higher rate than their American-born counterparts;

• They pay $2 billion each year in state and local taxes;

• Deporting the Dreamers could cost us $60 billion and punch a $460 billion hole in the economy over the next decade.

One more: The Center for American Progress estimates that more than 200,000 DACA recipients are people we need during the COVID-19 pandemic, including health care workers, police, firefighters and food producers.

It’s good for all of us if those people get to stay, but we need to make sure that becomes permanent — and that begins with voting in November.

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