Among the casualties of proposed immigration reform was the bipartisan Dream Act, which failed to garner the needed 60 Senate votes late last month. The name of the act is an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. It would have allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrant children who entered the United States before age 16 and grew up here as the offspring of undocumented parents to apply for temporary legal status. Then, if they attended college for two years or served two years in the military, they could apply for permanent status as a path to citizenship.
The Dream Act is one of the least controversial immigration proposals, concerning as it does children brought here from other countries but who essentially grew up as Americans. One recent case concerns two brothers, Juan and Alejandro Gómez, brought to Florida as infants from Colombia. Their parents came legally, but overstayed their visas and sought asylum because of the murder of relatives in Colombia. Their appeal was denied, and both parents were deported. Now grown, the two sons are in college in Miami. Juan in particular has shown exceptional academic ability. Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Representative Lincoln Díaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, introduced private bills on the brothers’ behalf. Their deportation has been suspended until 2009.
Expressing disappointment at the Dream Act’s failure to win the needed 60 votes in the Senate, Kevin Appleby, director of the Migration and Refugee Policy office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told America that “instead of investing in young persons who will return threefold what we put into their education,” Congress instead chose to bow to what he called “the politics of immigration.” Referring to localities that have enacted anti-immigrant legislation—like the city of Hazleton in Pennsylvania, which voted to penalize landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and employers who hired them—he said that while such statutes “may play well politically,” they may not be in the communities’ best interest when immigrants depart and leave behind an economic lag as businesses suffer and industries like construction cannot find enough workers. Over the past two years, more than 30 towns have enacted statutes penalizing undocumented immigrants. A number of these ordinances are now being challenged in courts, and some have been overturned, he added, a circumstance that makes it clear that the solution lies at the federal level. “Apparently, we’re going to have to go through all these phases before Congress is pushed to act,” he concluded.
Late in July, a federal judge struck down Hazleton’s immigration ordinances, noting in his ruling that “persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights because of this single illegal act.” In New Jersey, the town of Riverside also passed a punitive ordinance aimed at immigrants; but, clearly influenced by events in Hazleton, the town council rescinded the ordinance in September. Other localities have also begun to re-examine statutes that have damaged economies and run up heavy legal bills trying to defend themselves against challenges by advocacy groups.
To their credit, the U.S. bishops have been working for years in support of comprehensive immigration legislation. In May, while hopes for immigration reform still ran high, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in an address in Philadelphia that “the remedy to our broken system is to provide legal status and an opportunity for permanent residency for those in the country currently, as well as legal avenues for future migrant workers.” Sadly, mending the broken system may have to wait until after the presidential election. Meanwhile, 12 million men, women and children will continue to live a shadowy existence in fear of deportation. As the negative politics of immigration takes an ever greater toll, the dream of an equitable solution appears to be on indefinite hold.