Biden Administration to Strengthen Protections for People Who Entered US Illegally as Children

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it will issue a proposed rule to preserve and fortify a program for people who are living illegally in the United States after entering as children, nicknamed “Dreamers.”

President Joe Biden issued a memo on Jan. 20, his first day in office, that directed the agency and the U.S. attorney general to maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects the Dreamers from deportation.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas referred to Biden’s actions on DACA in announcing his agency’s intent to strengthen the program’s protections for illegal immigrants.

“We are taking action to preserve and fortify DACA. This is in keeping with the President’s memorandum,” Mayorkas said in a statement, adding that while the move “is an important step,” only a legislative solution “can give full protection and a path to citizenship to the Dreamers who know the U.S. as their home.”

The Democrat-controlled House last week passed two immigration bills, including the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6, which would offer conditional legal status for 10 years to “Dreamers” who meet certain criteria, like being 18 or younger when they entered the United States, and not have serious criminal records.

Other provisions of the bill offer Dreamers permanent residency status—or a green card—if they have a higher education degree, serve in the military, or have been employed for at least three years. After five years, they would be eligible to apply for citizenship, just like other people who have obtained green cards.

An estimated 4.4 million illegal immigrants in total could become eligible for permanent residency if the Dreamers bill becomes law, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The legislation faces an uncertain future in the deeply divided Senate, however, as the bill would require at least 10 Republicans to join all 50 Democrats to break the filibuster. Nine Republicans joined all Democrats to support the American Dream and Promise Act when it cleared the House on March 18.

U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol is seen at dusk in Washington on March 5, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

The DACA program has for years been a political hot potato. It was created by an executive order signed in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, following failed immigration reform negations on Capitol Hill.

Many conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, have argued DACA is unconstitutional, although Trump expressed sympathy for the Dreamers’ plight and indicated openness to a negotiated, bipartisan solution.

Trump tried to end the DACA program in 2017, saying at the time that winding it down would provide Congress a “window of opportunity” to act on the issue, but bitter partisan divisions over immigration meant that never happened.

Trump’s decision to end the program was met with opposition and sparked a legal battle that led to multiple federal courts—including the U.S. Supreme Court—ruling against the move to end DACA, with some federal judges ordering U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to continue accepting and adjudicating on DACA renewal applications.

DACA defenders say that the recipients should not be faulted for their parents’ decision to violate U.S. immigration laws to bring them into the country. They argue that there would be a number of social and economic costs should the program end. They say many of these recipients have contributed to the U.S. economy and removing the program would threaten the nation’s future workforce and impose massive costs to employers who currently employ these people.

For DACA opponents, the case represents an overreach of executive authority and a usurpation of Congress’s lawmaking powers. They have argued that Obama exercised unlawful executive authority to create the program and that only Congress can enact such a policy under its authority over immigration matters.

Opponents have also taken issue with the fact that DACA grants benefits to these recipients ahead of other immigrants who are toiling through legal channels to gain immigration and naturalization in the United States.

Mayorkas’ announcement comes as the DACA program faces another legal test, with a district court judge poised to issue a ruling in a lawsuit filed by Texas’ Republican attorney general, who wants the program declared illegal and phased out of existence.

Janita Kan contributed to this report.

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