The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress must end the purgatory for ‘dreamers’

Legislation to protect their status should be approved in the lame-duck session.

Protesters outside the Capitol in January 2018 advocate for legislation to support "dreamers" -- people who were brought to the United States as children without legal permission to immigrate. Many are now students in college. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Lawmakers face a moral imperative next week when they return to the Capitol to wrap up the 115th Congress. Democrats and Republicans, lame-duck members and those coming back in January — all members of Congress should feel duty-bound to pass legislation permanently protecting “dreamers.”

Who are the dreamers?

They are hundreds of thousands of bright and talented young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. They work and pay taxes. They serve in the military and teach in our schools. And tens of thousands of them have or are striving to earn a college degree.

But their hopes for the future have been put on hold since President Trump in September 2017 rescinded the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allowed many dreamers to gain work permits, a Social Security card, driver’s licenses and deferred deportation status.

These outstanding individuals have been in an unacceptable political and legal limbo ever since, their uncertainty growing and their fears escalating. The president called on Congress to pass a legislative fix by March 2018 when he rescinded DACA, charging that the policy exceeded the bounds of executive branch authority.

But Congress has failed to act. Court decisions have so far kept DACA alive — such as the ruling on Thursday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court. However, the administration has signaled clearly that it wants the Supreme Court to quickly take up the case and abolish DACA, which would subject dreamers to deportation from the only country they have ever called home.

It is a kind of purgatory that few of us can imagine. And the longer Congress waits, the more excruciating the agony.

But lawmakers have it in their power now to release the dreamers from their torment.

Family separation, migrant caravans and the president’s desired border wall were all issues to one degree or the other in this week’s midterm elections. In an era of intense polarization, few topics roil Americans along ideological and partisan lines more than immigration. The ravings of the accused shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue also included references to the migrant caravan.

Prospects for comprehensive immigration reform remain remote as we prepare to return to divided government in January when Democrats seat their House majority.

But there is an opportunity to protect dreamers when lawmakers reconvene next week in a lame-duck session wrapping up the 115th Congress.

They have to approve a final fiscal year 2019 spending package by Dec. 7 to prevent a partial federal government closure. Indeed, there may not be more “must pass” pieces of legislation where dreamers can be included for some time, even after the new Congress convenes next year. The president may demand funding for his border wall in this spending bill, and lawmakers who want to protect dreamers can call for a provision safeguarding those young people.

The desire to protect dreamers is one immigration-related issue where there is little disagreement among voters and more bipartisan support among lawmakers than most other hot button topics.

Last year, my organization submitted a letter to Congress signed by more than 800 college and university presidents calling on lawmakers to take action to pass a permanent legislative solution protecting dreamers. Similar support has been expressed by hundreds of business and industry leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Protecting dreamers is not controversial among the general public. A Gallup survey in June found that 83 percent of Americans, including 75 percent of Republicans, favor or strongly favor a proposal to allow dreamers the chance to become U.S. citizens.

It may be tempting, and indeed natural, for lawmakers to retreat back to their warring camps during this lame-duck session. Unfortunately, the reality is that on most issues, gridlock will prevail.

But this must be the exception. Dreamers can no longer be treated as political hostages. Now is the time to act.

Lawmakers might think about it this way: Passing a legislative solution to safeguard the future of dreamers is a rare opportunity to show the nation that they can get something done on an issue that most Americans agree on.

In 1776, Abigail Adams memorably urged her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and other men fought to establish America’s independence. To echo those wise words: We must not forget the dreamers.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, based in Washington, which represents colleges and universities. Previously he was undersecretary of education in the Obama administration.