WASHINGTON – DACA program participants contribute positively to American society and the federal government needs to find a way to regularize their status through legal means, a Department of Homeland Security official told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
“They’re a benefit to the country, as are many immigrants coming in,” Michael Dougherty, an assistant secretary for DHS, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I served as the (Citizenship and Immigration Services) ombudsman. I naturalized people to become U.S. citizens. It means a great deal. They are a valuable contribution to our society. We need to regularize their status through some legal means.”
President Trump moved to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September, setting a six-month expiration on the program. If Congress does not act, the program will expire in March 2018, voiding their ability to live and work in the U.S. legally.
Established in 2012 by the Obama administration, DACA temporarily shields some immigrant students and workers who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation. The nearly 800,000 program participants have had to register with the government, pay an application fee and pass criminal and national-security background checks. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have filed lawsuits challenging DACA’s termination.
Though Trump has criticized the process in which the Obama administration implemented DACA, he said in a Sept. 7 tweet: “For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about – No action!” Some conservatives have called for Congress to include border wall funding in any potential legislative solution, but Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) argued against that caveat Tuesday.
“Any potential deal on DACA has to include robust border security, and by that I don’t mean a wall,” Grassley said.
DHS officials said Tuesday that they believe it’s the president’s desire to secure the U.S. border while offering DACA recipients a “decent life” and options for staying and working in the U.S. moving forward. At this point, Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have any directives on how to proceed if Congress fails to address the issue through the legislative process.
“We will develop those at the time (March 5), but hopefully we will have immigration reform legislation that will obviate the need for that,” Dougherty said.
“I don’t know how we can’t fix this problem, but maybe we’ll find a way,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said during the hearing.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) took issue with recent statements from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has argued that DACA participants represent risks of crime, violence and terrorism. DOJ Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler clarified those comments, saying that Sessions was commenting on the impact of legal and illegal immigration in general. The attorney general will more than likely further clarify his comments when he testifies before the committee later this month. Leahy welcomed the news.
“Really? It’s about time,” Leahy said. “I’m glad to hear that. He’s taken longer than any attorney general since I’ve been here, but I’ve only been here for 42 years with Republican and Democratic administrations.”
In a fiery exchange, Leahy asked Readler to provide examples of DACA recipients engaging in criminal and terrorist behavior, but Readler could not offer any instances. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director James McCamet noted that of the 800,000 so-called DREAMers, there have been about 2,000 instances of termination from the DACA program due to criminal activity.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said that those 2,000 instances are a disservice to a population with a vast majority who want to contribute positively to the U.S. He argued for an “articulate, compassionate, firm” response to provide certainty to the DACA population that is both fiscally sound and border secure. He said such a solution would be consistent with Trump’s tweets from September and asked for clarity from the administration on what kind of solution Congress should offer.
“We need to stop talking about it and solve it,” he said.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) equated the decision to terminate DACA to “shooting ourselves in the foot” because DREAMers are useful young people playing by the rules and looking for a chance at the American Dream.