A dozen years ago, when George W. Bush was President, I wrote my first of thirteen columns lamenting our nation’s inability to solve immigration problems. Three presidents later, rational long-term immigration legislation is still absent.
America’s attitude toward immigration always has been problematical. One small piece of it, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), received a legal reprieve and a humane decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision last week. This ruling does not guarantee that DACA participants can remain here legally and permanently, but that would be the right decision.
In 2009, I first wrote about DACA, which was known as the Development, Relief and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act. It was a bipartisan proposal to address the problem of children, teens and young adults whose parents illegally brought them here as infants or young children. Some were too young to know their lack of legal status, and the great majority had no attachment to, or even familiarity with, their parents’ native lands.
Today, there about 650,000 people in DACA. They have studied, worked and lived as though they were Americans. Many have been in the active military and some have family here who are American citizens. But the DACA cohort has been in limbo because partisan politics make Congress incapable of solving most complex issues.
The current Congress is not the first to limit immigration. Essentially, we Americans have never wanted new immigrants who do not look, talk and act like the majority of current residents. Today, as in the past, most new immigrants trying to escape poverty and misery rarely resemble those already here.
In 1798, so many new people arrived on our shores that Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which included making it harder for immigrants to get voting rights and easier for the government to deport foreigners.
America needed more population in the mid 1800s, but we weren’t pleased when many Irish Catholics immigrated after Ireland’s potato famine. One group of Americans, concerned that the Catholics would have allegiance to the pope rather than to the country, formed the “Know Nothing” party, also called the American Party, with far-right ideology.
Since then, Congress has sought to extensively limit Asian immigrants starting with 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, renewed in 1902 and 1917. The 1921 Quota Act was designed to seek new immigrants who looked like northern Europeans who arrived here generations earlier. A century later, our government’s goal isn’t much different. The 1965 immigration act abolished the national origins quotas set in 1921, but comprehensive forward-looking immigration legislation has been stymied since then.
Most of today’s DACA participants range from older teens to almost 40-year olds. DACA enrollees must be free of legal charges, employed, in the military or attending college. Sending them back to a country, and often a language, they do not know would be cruel and inhumane. Because SCOTUS’ recent decision is largely based on a procedural concern, DACA participants are not necessarily on their way to permanent status or citizenship.
It may be years, decades or even generations before America develops much-needed rational immigration legislation. But in the meantime, we should finally settle the DACA/DREAMERS plight and legislate a path for them to become bona fide Americans.