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Historic DACA ruling underscores urgent need for immigration reform, lawmakers say

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Comprehensive immigration reform will only happen if both chambers of Congress and the president get on the same page, and that hinges on upcoming elections, two South Texas congressmen told Border Report on Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas. (Courtesy Photo)

“This has always been about comprehensive immigration reform,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, told Border Report following the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision Thursday to uphold the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects from deportation, young migrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“These are ideal individuals that we want to keep here and not deport, as President Trump wants to do. So this is a victory. It’s going to be a temporary victory, but it’s a victory and we got to make this a permanent program,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report on Thursday.

Vela and Cuellar were among a majority of House members who in June 2019 voted for the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would have granted DACA recipients — or “Dreamers,” as they are known — permanent legal residency provided they met certain conditions, such as staying in this country and pursuing educational degrees. The bill also would have forbidden other migrant minors from being removed from the country for 10 years if they also met certain criteria.

Seven House Republicans joined with the majority in favor of the bill, which passed in a 237 to 187 vote. But the Republican-led Senate never took it up.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. (Courtesy Photo)

Now Vela and Cuellar say they both have hope that the political landscape will change with the November election, which could give Democrats a majority in the Senate and possibly the White House, something both lawmakers say is necessary in order to overhaul the arcane 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

“All we need is a shot at taking a vote on this. That’s all we need to protect those DACA and ‘Dreamers,'” said Cuellar, who added that he has discussed the issue with several Republicans in the House and Senate who are in favor of legislation granting “Dreamers” a pathway to citizenship. But he says it all hinges on cues from Trump, or whoever is in the White House.

“This fight is not over. We know the Trump administration will try again to end this important program. Congress must fix this and protect ‘Dreamers.’ We must pass H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act,” said U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-California, vicechair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “The Supreme Court’s decision in this case temporarily upholds the ability of more than 700,000 residents to live and work in the only country many of them have ever known.”

Some House Republicans agree that Congress must enact a permanent legislative solution for DACA recipients. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for bipartisan and bicameral action on DACA.

Others have come out against Thursday’s ruling. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “We are disappointed with today’s SCOTUS decision, but it does not resolve the underlying issue that President Obama’s original executive order exceeded his constitutional authority. We look forward to continuing litigating that issue in our case now pending in the Southern District of Texas.”   

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion, issued Thursday by Chief Justice John Roberts, called the Trump administration’s attempt to end the 8-year-old DACA program “arbitrary and capricious.” But the opinion did not weigh in on the validity of the DACA program itself, only on how it was upended. And the high court remanded the program back to the Department of Homeland Security.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. ‘The wisdom’ of those decisions ‘is none of our concern.’ Chenery II, 332 U. S., at 207. We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner. The appropriate recourse is therefore to remand to DHS so that it may consider the problem anew,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

As migrant advocates were celebrating Thursday’s ruling as a win, they were cautious to quickly add they view it as temporary and they believe the fate of DACA recipients remains tentative unless Congress puts in lasting immigration reform.

Texas State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, is seen in his South Texas office in December 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Right now, it sends a message, and today was a big win and something very positive and it’s great news and I’m elated that this occurred, but I think there’s still a lot of work to do so we can make it permanent, and we need to continue to move that and support that,” Texas State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez told Border Report moments after the verdict.

Thousands of South Texas residents are among the 649,000 DACA recipients nationwide, and most “Dreamers” openly proclaim their immigration status, said Martinez, a Democrat from South Texas who is secretary of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, Texas is the state with the second-most DACA recipients, with 107,020 enrolled, after California’s 184,880, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Most are from Mexico, over 521,000.

Those accepted into the DACA program must not have a criminal record, they must show they are working or enrolled in school or the military and are contributing to society. Every two years, they must pay the $495 renewal fee in order to continue in the program. Estimates place contributions from “Dreamers” to the national GDP at $433 billion and estimate they pay $12.3 billion in taxes to Social Security and Medicare. Cuellar said that 200,000 DACA recipients work on “the front line” in helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Contrary to what you hear, they are a positive portion of our society and they are what makes our Valley better.”

Texas State Rep. Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez

“Contrary to what you hear, they are a positive portion of our society and they are what makes our Valley better. They’re what makes our state better and our nation better and we need to applaud them,” Martinez said. “We need to support them and get behind them and give them all a pathway to citizenship because they deserve it.”

Luis Maldonado, 33, has been part of the DACA program since 2012. He arrived in South Texas from Mexico at age 10 and now lives in Austin and works in the tech industry. (Courtesy photo)

Luis Maldonado, 33, has been part of the DACA program since it began in 2012 and recently renewed his application for the fourth time. Maldonado came to the United States from Mexico when he was 10 years old from the town of Ciudad Mante, traveling on bus and crossing the Rio Grande on foot into South Texas. He graduated in 2016 from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley with several other “Dreamer” classmates, but he says he has never really felt safe and always fears his immigration status being revoked.

“That’s something that has been affecting my mental health on top of the virus, the lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement, the police brutality. Everything for some of us were building up and on top of that we were at risk of losing the ability to continue to work legally in this country,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado now lives in Austin and works in the tech industry. He says living farther north from the border has caused him to look over his shoulder more.

“DACA recipients, we are always on edge. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Now, we can breathe a little bit better for now, and hopefully, it stays that way,” Maldonado said after Thursday’s ruling. “Hopefully, the lawmakers realize this and will make a change to find a path for citizenship for many of us and our families as well.”

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