Imagine if agents of the federal government showed up at your door and said you had to leave your friends, your family, your job and your country and move to whatever place your ancestors came from.
In my case, if that ancestor were the most recent, I would be heading for Norway, the country from which my mother’s grandfather emigrated in the 1860s. There are much worse places to live than the lovely land of the fjords, but I don’t know anyone there and I certainly don’t know the language.
I’d be a little better off if I could retrace the path of the earliest immigrant ancestor in my father’s family, an adventurous young Englishman who landed on Maryland’s eastern shore in the 1640s. In England, I not only know the language, I have friends of long standing. Still, it would not be home. It would be exile.
Imagining this scenario helps a little in understanding the cruel quandary facing the “Dreamers” who have just been told by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that they may soon be forced out of the only land they have called home.
These young people were brought into the United States as children by parents who crossed the border illegally, mostly from Mexico. Thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program instituted through an executive action taken by President Obama, they were given the chance to continue living here rather than face deportation. Many have gone to college and earned degrees. Others have served in the military. They are finding good jobs and becoming productive members of a society in which the population is aging and new replacement workers will be increasingly hard to find.
Right now, there are about 800,000 of these Dreamers, 25% of whom reside in California. Contrary to the lies being told about them, their ranks are not filled with criminals. In order to become eligible for DACA, each applicant goes through a vetting process aimed at weeding out the bad seeds. Perhaps a few slipped through, but, overwhelmingly, these are good kids in which this country has already invested years of education. They are eager to prove themselves as valuable to America as all the immigrants who came before them. The catch is that tricky matter of legal status.
Now, I am not one who thinks our borders should be thrown wide open. During his campaign for president, Donald Trump said, “If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.” I actually agree with Trump on that. At the same time, though, if we don’t have immigrants, we will become less of a country, both economically and culturally. Immigration has provided continuous renewal and reinvention for the United States, even as it has been resisted by fearful people in every generation.
Way back when my ancestors arrived on America’s shores, there were few rules governing immigration. They just showed up and started building new lives. These days, it is a lot more complicated and our laws have not kept up with the realities. Demagogues have whipped up anti-immigrant fears and prevented any compromise that would allow Congress to finally pass updated legislation that might make our immigration system more rational.
President Trump (who has done plenty of demagoguing himself) is now urging lawmakers to pass some kind of immigration bill in the next six months. Even as his administration announced that DACA would be phased out and that Dreamers should start planning their departure for unfamiliar lands, Trump was revealing his own ambivalence in tweets that suggested he might reconsider the whole thing if the House and Senate fail to come up with a legislative fix that will allow the Dreamers to stay.
On the campaign trail, Trump characterized many Mexican immigrants as criminals, pledged to build a big, beautiful wall on the border and vowed to boot out every undocumented immigrant, including those who have grown up here. Now, however, he appears to have developed a soft spot in his heart for these admirable young people. Notably, he delegated to Sessions the task of announcing the bad news about DACA. Meanwhile, Trump was expressing his “love” for the Dreamers. He seems to want it both ways; to please his xenophobic base of supporters by delivering on his promise to kill DACA while signaling that he is perfectly willing to have the same program reconstituted by the Republican Congress before anybody really gets forced out of the country.
That does not look like much of a formula for leadership and, without a push from the president, it seems quite unlikely the immigration hardliners in the Republican caucuses will allow passage of a bill by the six-month deadline. Nevertheless, with a big majority of Americans telling pollsters that the Dreamers should stay and with protests ratcheting up, there will be a political price to pay for failure.
And the biggest potential cost for the U.S. would be to lose 800,000 young people who want only to establish productive lives in the one place they know as home.
Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter
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