The House passed a bill on Tuesday to give more than 2 million undocumented immigrants a chance at legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship, including the so-called Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as children, and others with temporary humanitarian protection.
The bill, which faces tough odds in the Republican-controlled Senate, is the result of two decades of lobbying from Dreamers and immigration advocates. It’s also a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s attempts to hack away at immigrant rights, including attempts to strip Dreamers of Obama-era protections.
“We are seeing this policy passing under Trump’s very nose while he is out there criminalizing and demonizing our communities,” said Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director at the immigrant youth organization United We Dream. “It’s a moment of resistance.”
The Dream and Promise Act is the latest iteration of the longstanding Dream Act that was introduced in 2001 but has never passed Congress. This bill builds on the original act by combining protections for Dreamers with those who have Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure because they have fled natural disasters or wars in their home countries.
But while immigrant youth advocates are celebrating the victory, they are also concerned that certain aspects of the bill demonize immigrant youth. The Dream and Promise Act gives the secretary of homeland security the discretion to deny legal status to immigrants with certain juvenile adjudications and gang affiliation, which juvenile justice experts told HuffPost could get people deported from the U.S. for spraying graffiti as a minor or even for wearing colors that match those of a gang.
Rachel Marshall, the federal policy counsel for Campaign for Youth Justice, said these provisions had never existed in previous versions of the Dream Act and that they reinforce a harmful narrative of good vs. bad immigrants. “These are just normal kids behaving in normal ways,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to live in uncertain futures on the basis of mistakes they made.”
On May 21, Marshall and advocates from 26 other youth organizations sent a letter to Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee urging them not to pass the bill in its current form. They are concerned that the act criminalizes juvenile mistakes and exacerbates systemic racism, given the fact that black and brown youths are most likely to be arrested by police and targeted as suspected gang members.
In an email to HuffPost, a senior Democratic aide said: “The Judiciary Committee worked diligently with the bill’s authors, and with Members of diverse views, to produce legislation with sound provisions designed to protect Americans from real threats to public safety without providing the Trump Administration the means to falsely deny undocumented immigrants based on nothing more than flimsy accusations.”
The juvenile system is designed to be rehabilitative rather than punitive, because adolescents have developing brains that are prone to taking risks. But under the Dream and Promise Act, anyone with a juvenile adjudication that landed them in a secure facility and that hasn’t been expunged from their record ― such offenses could include truancy or breaking curfew ― could be banned from applying for legal status and forced to leave the U.S.
“It conveys that these immigrant youth are somehow less trustworthy and that there’s something different about them,” said Sarah Bryer, the president and executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “Why would we hold them to a different standard” than U.S.-born children?
Bryer has concerns about the criteria used to label someone a gang member, since she says this administration conflates “gangs with immigration.” The act specifies that state or federal databases cannot be used to prove someone is part of a gang, since this information is notoriously unreliable, but advocates worry other sources will also be just as discriminatory. For example, Marshall said Immigration and Customs Enforcement will label immigrants gang members for wearing what they perceive as gang apparel and being in an area known for gang activity.
“You are essentially punishing these kids for perhaps where they live and who they hang out with,” said Marshall, “and that is just counter to all principles of basic fairness.”
“You are essentially punishing these kids for perhaps where they live and who they hang out with, and that is just counter to all principles of basic fairness.”
The decision to ban someone from applying for legal status on the basis of previous legal adjudications or gang participation is ultimately up to the secretary of homeland security’s discretion, and applicants can appeal that decision. But youth advocates worry this anti-immigrant administration would deny people frequently.
Abrar said that, although she’s disappointed in the provisions that target immigrant youth, the bill is a momentous success because it does not include increased funding for immigration enforcement or enhanced border security, and it does include important legal reforms, such as guaranteed access to legal counsel and a waiver for marijuana or civil-disobedience misdemeanors during the application process.
Bryer said she also recognizes that, in general, the bill is overwhelmingly positive. But she is upset that Democrats, who are supposed to be progressive when it comes to immigration, would pollute an important bill by including provisions that harm immigrant youth.
“They are falling prey to some of the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that is tainting federal and state policies,” she said. “It is really perplexing.”