Originally sponsored by Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Orin Hatch, the DREAM Act would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children, who had otherwise obeyed our laws, and who were in school, the military, or had graduated or been honorably discharged.
About 800,000 young people are in this position. Based on the fair-minded notion that children ought not to be responsible for the choices of their parents, and that young people should be rewarded for being productive citizens, the DREAM Act has languished for over a decade as Congress has become more polarized.
Last week, President Obama took one small action within his power on this issue. As President, he can’t singlehandedly rewrite the law. But as Chief Executive, he has the power to order the Justice Department, Homeland Security, ICE and other federal law enforcement departments to prioritize.
And the new priority is this: no more deporting DREAMers – law-abiding young people who came to the US under the age of 16, have been here at least five years, who are in school, are high school grads, or have their GED, or are honorably discharged vets. Given limited resources, better to go after criminals.
No one’s immigration status changes under President Obama’s order. No one becomes a legal resident or citizen as a result. And after age 30, DREAMers age out of the no-deportation rule. As Homeland Security Secretary said in her memorandum setting forth the new executive policy:
This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship.
Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.
Despite all the hoopla over this announcement, then, this tiny step means as a practical matter that nearly a million young people can rest easy that they won’t be deported. Not this year, anyway. But their illegal status remains, and their future is unclear.
That’s why the real DREAM Act – the one languishing before Congress – remains necessary. Mens rea is an essential element in our criminal law – criminal intent, the concept that a defendant must have intended to commit the act in question. Mentally ill people, in many cases, are not legally responsible for their acts. And so it is with children. We do not allow them to sign contracts, drink, drive, vote, or conduct most of their own legal affairs, because we recognize they are too young to be responsible for their actions. Kids brought across a border by their families when they had no say in the choice should not be penalized when they have followed the rules and done their best – even served our country. They should be granted legal citizenship so that they can work and contribute fully to our communities. That’s the basic humanitarian precept behind the DREAM Act – a DREAM that is still deferred.
The opinions expressed here represent my own and not necessarily those of Avvo.com.