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One Year Later, Obama’s Decision to Protect Dreamers a Turning Point

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One year ago this weekend, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for DREAMers.  This bold executive action, spurred by the actions and advocacy of the DREAMers themselves, reignited Latino voter enthusiasm for President Obama, crystallized the immigration distinctions between President Obama and Mitt Romney and played a decisive role in the 2012 election results.  Last August, a member of the President’s political brain-trust even predicted to Ezra Klein of the Washington Post that the DACA announcement was “the day the election was won,” with Klein noting, “Changing people’s lives is always more effective than another campaign ad.  And this policy is looking like it’s going to change a lot of lives.”

Now, one year later, we have evidence of how actual lives have changed for the better thanks to the DACA announcement.  In the midst of this year’s immigration debate, which the DACA announcement and its subsequent political ramifications helped to make possible, this reflection is an essential reminder of why the immigration debate and opening up the doors of opportunity to full participation in American life – through the path to citizenship – matter so much.  An article in today’s New York Times by Kirk Semple describes how DREAMers’ lives have changed since DACA:

One found a job as a teacher’s assistant at a center for children with autism.  Another became a kitchen designer in Manhattan for an Italian company and is setting up his own general contracting firm.  A third started driving a taxi to help pay for college.  They are among more than 291,000 immigrants who have been granted temporary reprieves from deportation under a program President Obama announced last June.  The program, which is open to young people who were brought to the United States as children and are here illegally, allows them to obtain a Social Security number, apply for driver’s licenses and work.  As Congress considers an immigration package, with debate in the Senate beginning this week, the program’s impact suggests how the lives of the nation’s 11 million immigrants in the country illegally might be transformed by a broader overhaul.  In interviews, those who have received the reprieve, known as deferred action, said it had changed things in numerous ways, from the practical to the emotional, the mundane to the profound.  Many talked about being able to walk out their front door for the first time without fear that a wrong turn could lead to deportation proceedings.

The Times article also notes of DACA, “it has already demonstrated the political power of the immigration issue.  Mr. Obama’s decision to approve deferred action has been widely credited with helping to rally the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election.”

With the immigration debate moving full steam ahead in Washington, the Senate immigration bill largely reflects the lessons learned from DACA and its political impact, offering an expedited and permanent path to citizenship for DREAMers as well as providing hope for their parents through a longer, yet achievable path to legalization and citizenship.  While some Senate Republicans have been attempting to weaken the bill through poison pill amendments, other Republicans like Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have been among the bill’s strongest and most consistent backers and are helping the GOP reshape its tarnished image with Latino voters in the process.

Over in the House of Representatives, however, it can seem like some alternate universe in which DACA and the 2012 elections never occurred.  Last week, the House passed an amendment from leading anti-immigrant Rep. Steve King that would undo the DACA program and threaten Dreamers with deportation.  Yesterday, a group of DREAMers protested at Steve King’s office, prompting the congressman to ask Gang of Eight Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) in a tweet, to “guard my door” while calling the DREAMers, “brazen self professed illegal aliens.”  And next week, the House Judiciary Committee is primed to move forward on a bill introduced by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) that is eerily reminiscent of the infamous Sensenbrenner bill of 2005 and would “turn millions of those [undocumented] immigrants into criminals overnight.”  Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MN) said that if immigration reform passes, “We will perpetually have a progressive, liberal president, probably a Democrat, and we will probably see the House of Representatives go into Democrat hands and the Senate will stay in Democrat hands…That’s what’s at risk right now. It may sound melodramatic, I don’t mean it that way, but this is that big and that important.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

As we reflect on the DREAMer deferred action anniversary and look at this year’s immigration debate, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and sensible Republicans have a choice: immigration reform that offers dignity and opportunities to future teacher’s assistants, contractors, college strivers, and their parents; or policies and rhetoric from the likes of House hardliners who hold aspiring citizens as ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals?” The future of the GOP may well depend on the decision.