Senators' Bill to Help Young Undocumented Immigrants May Thwart Paxton's Plans

A rally outside the Harris County Sheriff's Office in 2015 to end programs that facilitated deportation.
A rally outside the Harris County Sheriff's Office in 2015 to end programs that facilitated deportation. Photo by Gilbert Bernal
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton may want to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program protecting undocumented immigrants who came here as children against deportation. But that may soon become a pointless endeavor, as Congress on Thursday unveiled a bipartisan bill that would create a permanent program for those young immigrants and offer a viable path to citizenship.

Yet another iteration of the Dream Act, the bill is authored this time by senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Under the bill, undocumented immigrants would qualify for a path to citizenship if they are longtime residents in the United States after coming here as children; have a high school diploma or GED; have pursued higher education; pass a background check and have no felonies on their record; have had lawful employment for three years or have served in the military; as well as speak English and know their U.S. history.

"[The bill] would enable me to get on a pathway to citizenship and provide guarantees to my family that we would stay together," Angelica Villalobos, a DACA beneficiary and mother of four in Oklahoma, told reporters in a phone call Thursday. "The Dream Act is a good thing, but it’s not a substitute for the work permit I have in my hands today. If DACA is taken away while Congress debates the new Dream Act, my family will be left in a dangerous gap."

The proposal comes just three weeks after Paxton, along with nine other attorneys general, threatened to sue the feds over DACA if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn't voluntarily dismantle the program by September 1. Given the administration's lackluster attitude toward undocumented young people and kids and its attack-dog approach to undocumented immigrants in general, there has been little indication of whether the Trump administration would actually defend DACA in court if Paxton followed through on that threat; Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been silent about it.

So legislators swooped in just in time, apparently offering undocumented youth a safety net just in case DACA goes up in flames.

Here in Houston, the Dream Act would benefit approximately 60,000 people, which is the number of people eligible for DACA in Houston, according to a 2015 study by the Migration Policy Institute. At that time, approximately 30,000 young adults had already benefited from DACA — which means they are now at risk of losing that protection if DACA is repealed before Congress can pass the Dream Act. Or worse, if the bill fails completely, as it has several times since 2001.

"Politicians in Congress have stood in the way of me being able to apply for citizenship for decades," Villalobos said, "and now they want to take away the one protection that many of us have."

Although President Trump had told reporters last week that he had gained a better understanding of undocumented youth, he still didn't commit to DACA, saying it was a difficult decision.

He apparently has already made up his mind about the Dream Act, however, according to McClatchy.

“The president campaigned on enforcement first, and that is where his focus is,” a White House official told the outlet.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn