2016 was a year devoted to answering the question of what America is. Whether an asinine email scandal pales in comparison to openly pining about bringing back torture. Whether we continue to lead the free world with the same vigor as we did in rebuilding post-WWII Europe. 2016 was a referendum on American values, a choice between isolation or inclusion.
2017, by contrast, is shaping up to be the year of who America is. President Donald Trump’s travel ban which disproportionately hurt Muslims, his remarks on the “very fine” people shouting “Jews will not replace us” in Virginia and his recent decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program all re-define who qualifies as an American.
It’s the culmination of a political ideology that’s wobbly on birthright citizenship and whose adherents worry about “other people’s babies” reinvigorating the American population count. Demography has been a consistent policy theme this year, and while it has always been indicative of our values, it has come to subsume the undercurrent of our entire national dialogue.
DACA was established by the Obama administration in 2012, allowing for children brought into the country illegally by their parents to get a temporary reprieve from deportation. Recipients must have clean criminal records and receive authorization to work and study in the United States. DACA deferrals can be renewed every two years and enrollees are not eligible for a path to eventual citizenship.
Unlike what its critics charge, it isn’t a form of “executive amnesty.” It mirrors similar discretion undertaken by previous presidents in directing the very limited resources of the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have exercised similar authority towards Cuban immigrants, according to a letter signed by dozens of law school professors in support of the program.
There has been plenty of electronic and physical ink spilled already on the moral and practical implications of Trump’s dreadful DACA decision. There will be renewed hope to finally pass the DREAM Act, a bill to naturalize those brought into this country as children. It was as common sense in 2001 when it was introduced as it is now in 2017.
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The 800,000 DACA recipients (and 1.1 million people who are eligible) deserve to cement their presence in the United States, to say nothing of the entire undocumented population. Congress should take the president’s feckless decision as a mandate to pass the DREAM Act as quickly as possible to ensure continuity for the roughly 8,000 Wisconsinites affected, as well as the remaining 1 million other immigrants.
What does U.S. citizenship mean, exactly? For the 1.1 million Dreamers, and the 11 million total undocumented individuals residing in the US, it’s a sense of legitimacy. DACA recipients attend college, serve in our armed forces and overwhelmingly contribute to our private-sector economy––all of which are elements of a so-called “mainstream” American life. The only thing that’s actually missing from their lives is the legal acknowledgement that they are here to stay permanently.
The concept of American citizenship is also linked to our shared moral values. The New York Times solicited the stories of DACA enrollees which are chock-full of individuals who mentor others, nurture a love of country and family and contribute monumentally to all aspects of society. To allow them to lapse into an area of statutory limbo, subject to the Trump administration’s immigration raids, says more about the administration’s character than anything else.
Perhaps it says more, too, about nativists like Congressman Steve King, R-IA., a man who cannot decide whether Dreamers are drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes” or kids who, once deported, can build up institutions in their home countries. The willingness of the right to deny citizenship and hope to those who most embody American ideals speaks clearly about what they consider to be true Americanism.
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Immigration policy shouldn’t just be a cost-benefit analysis with the positive economic impact of low- and high-wage workers in mind. It is also a test of who we are. For the sake of the nation’s conscience, I hope we pass.
Our government, in the mean time, has already failed.
Zach Urisman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in finance.