Last week I ventured into an alternate reality. Like the child, Alice, descending through the rabbit hole, I engaged on immigration with Executive-Branch officials, immigration lawyers, members of Congress, including the indefatigable champion of immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, their staffs, and a group of 7th and 8th graders advocating on the Hill for passage of the DREAM Act.
At the same time, bloggers, Tweeple and cable-TV bloviators could not stop talking about the separate comments of a current member of the Supreme Court and of a former judge.
The sitting jurist is Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose enigmatic notions of liberty will likely spell the fate of President Obama's signature measure, the Affordable Care Act, including its provision of medical coverage to uninsured children.
The ex-judge, once a Virginia magistrate, is Robert Zimmerman, father of the man who slayed 17-year-old, Skittles-armed Trayvon Martin. Magistrate Zimmerman enraged many by observing, implausibly, that he is tired of "all the hate" coming from President Obama, apparently referring to the pitch-perfect, hate-free and only remarks of the President on Trayvon's death. As the Washington Post reported, President Obama said:
I can only imagine what these parents are going through . . . And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened . . . If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon . . . When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.
Also last week, the Director of USCIS, Alejandro Mayorkas, spoke poignantly (even more intimately than in his earlier writings) of the losses and sacrifices his parents endured as they gave their children unimagined opportunities in America. He recalled an indomitable father who lost his livelihood and property in Castro's Cuba and yet built a new business in faraway California. He remembered a loyal, loving mother who came here as a refugee but would not rest until his brothers joined them in America.
Out on the campaign trail, concern for children was also the topic of the week. Rick Santorum -- ever solicitous of keeping children on the straight and hetero path -- warned a young boy not to use a pink bowling ball. Meantime, supporters of Mitt Romney, seeking to reveal his tender side, coaxed him into telling the moving story of how at Bain Capital he closed the shop one day and with his employees went searching for a 15-year-old girl who'd gone missing in Manhattan.
Love of children, however, only goes so far within the Beltway. Children raised in America but born on the wrong side of an arbitrary, human-drawn boundary are not recipients of otherwise bountiful political love. As several child lobbyists (U.S. citizens all), mustering arguments for the DREAM Act, told legislators and staffers alike last week, "it's the moral thing to do." These under-age advocates, however, didn't rely solely on the heart and soul. Citing a RAND study, they also pitched arguments to the head, noting that the economic benefits of giving DREAMers legal status would be a net economic plus for America.
Their petitions, though politely received, seemed mostly to fall on deaf ears. The Capital cognoscenti all acknowledge that there is no chance for a vote on the DREAM Act before November's election.
Even more dispiriting, the much-heralded Obama-Administration palliative of interim relief through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion (PD) is working, at best, in feeble fits and starts. Judging from the comments I heard in DC, PD -- as implemented by ICE and apparently not at all by USCIS -- looks to be a disingenuous ploy to assuage the left and an administrative convenience to clear the backlog of cases pending in the immigration courts, including those with strong grounds for relief from removal.
Trying to put lipstick on this homely pig, a senior ICE official claimed at a bar gathering last week that the PD program, though in its infancy, is proving successful. I challenged him, noting that none of the members of ICE's union, constituting the bulk of ICE's 7000-person workforce -- have taken PD training. Another lawyer agreed, recounting the words of an ICE officer who told her, "I'm a deportation officer, not a discretion officer." Undaunted, the senior ICE official responded that, though the union members make the arrests, ICE supervisors and managers decide on grants or refusals of PD. Still, the fact remains, as ICE admits, that only 1% of detained immigrants and 8% of those in removal proceedings have been given PD.
Worse yet, PD by itself, without a companion grant of deferred action status (which offers a path to a work permit), is no more protective of a DREAMer's well being than snake oil. A PD grant without deferred action status allows the grantee one hard-hearted benefit -- the opportunity to vegetate in America, like a bromeliad, on thin air.
Administration defenders of the PD-only policy say that deferred action is the most precious form of PD, requiring multi-level signoff within ICE. Similarly, at USCIS deferred action can only be granted on the recommendation of a Field Office Director and the approval of a Regional Director. Astonishingly, according to Congressional staff and agency insiders, the USCIS units that decide the vast majority of applications for immigration benefits (the Regional Service Centers in Vermont, Texas, California and Nebraska) have no authority to grant deferred action.
If President Obama really cares deeply about children, he must do more than applaud his Justice Department for its proper decision to investigate the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. He must also explain what "every parent in America should be able to understand" and show "why it is absolutely imperative" that we not waste our DREAMers' young lives.
As I explained to CBS radio recently, he should make sure ICE focuses on removing really dangerous felons like the Vietnamese ex-con who'd been ordered removed in 2006 and now is alleged to have killed five people in San Francisco.
The President should also order ICE and USCIS to grant deferred action status generously, with less reliance on time-consuming case-by-case analysis and instead on an approach that is more quick and predictable. Perhaps, the method for determining deferred-action eligibility could be a presumptive yes-or-no decision based on a point system whereby values or demerits are calculated in alignment with the positive and negative factors identified in the June, 2011 Morton Memorandum. The point system should feature a two-way override. ICE should have discretion where warranted to overturn a presumptive "yes," and the person seeking deferred-action should be allowed to present evidence and seek to reverse a presumptive "no." This presupposes that we eliminate the charade that deferred action cannot be requested but merely is something that dawns on an immigration officer once s/he has stumbled upon facts warranting this act of administrative grace and convenience.
The case-by-case, PD-only policy has failed. At best, it has helped a tiny number of people to try and live as air plants in America. USCIS (and ICE, for those in immigration proceedings) should charge a filing fee to cover the cost of considering applicant-generated requests for deferred action. In these times of budgetary constraint, this is the only way to resolve the problem of large numbers of unauthorized persons with positive traits and abiding ties to this country who present no danger and are too numerous to deport at an affordable cost.
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As my week in Washington ended, I couldn't help but note the plentiful examples of our nation's founding, an action based on the same moral principles of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as cited by the junior high students who last week urged passage of the DREAM Act. America's seminal document, the Declaration of Independence, as Alex Nowrasteh of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, noted last week ("The Founders' Immigration Policy"), remains alive today. Our forebears, in announcing their separation from England, explained that severance of common citizenship with the British was necessary because the American colonists had "appealed to [the British people's] native justice and magnanimity" to reverse the "usurpations" of King George III, but nonetheless they "have been deaf to the voice of justice."
Oh son of a Kenyan and son of Cubans, be not deaf to the voice of justice. If you could adopt more children, they should look like our DREAMers.