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HALTing the DREAM

Published on Mon, Aug 01, 2011

Every now and then a piece of legislation comes around with a terribly creative acronym. The USA PATRIOT Act back in 2001 was one example. But rarely do two bills on the same issue appear in Congress with such diametrically opposed names and policy goals as the DREAM and HALT Acts.

The DREAM and HALT Acts are both currently being considered in Congress. DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors and laudably aims to offer specific pathways to US citizenship for undocumented students, most of whom entered the United States when they were very young. Despite being called a “win-win” by the Boston Globe and numerous other editorial boards as well as gaining elusive bipartisan support, the legislation died in the Senate during the last Congress’ lame-duck December session. Introduced again, it faces even longer odds in the current Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House, which has its own immigration “reform” plans.

Now consider the HALT Act, or Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation Act, which was introduced this July. Sponsored by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the bill would strip President Obama’s immigration discretionary powers until January 2013, when the winner of the 2012 election is sworn in. Hypocritically (or forgetfully), Smith once called for an expansion of these powers. The executive branch can only intervene in deportations in extraordinary cases, primarily in keeping families together if a spouse, parent or child of a citizen is found to be undocumented.

“Current immigration law often disregards the human right to family unity,” Grace Meng of Human Rights Watch wrote in The Hill. “This power to provide discretionary relief not only helps undocumented immigrants, but provides unquestionable help to their US citizen families as well.”

To Smith and the bill’s cosponsors, these humane powers are indicative of the president’s “temptation” to grant amnesty. Never mind the well-documented numbers showing the current administration’s record levels of deportation among illegal immigrants, particularly among felons. Never mind that according to the non-partisan Immigration Policy Center the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security has an “overemphasis on deportation-driven programs.” But that won’t stop Republicans from thinking Obama is implementing some sinister “backdoor amnesty” agenda, including the DREAM Act. Vitter even characterized it as “a cover for the Obama administration’s amnesty agenda...”

The HALT Act’s sponsors and supporters seem to ignore facts and instead buy into what Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren characterized as “a diabolical plot” and a “grand scheme to avoid enforcing immigration laws” at the first House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the bill. Numerous references to a conspirational-sounding “backdoor amnesty” could be heard from Republican congressmen Smith and Elton Gallegly.

“We thought [HALT] was a particularly appropriate acronym,” Smith said during an exchange with Congressman John Conyers. Conyers noted that he had never heard of a bill with the word “temptation” in it during his 46 years in Congress but “there’s a first time for everything.” He then lambasted the motivations of the bill, saying “this [bill] isn’t an attack on the office of the president. This is an attack on Barack Obama himself.”

Whatever its motivations, the bill would inflict immeasurable harm on millions of American families. Margaret Stock, lawyer, retired lieutenant colonel, and a professor of political science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, characterized the bill as a “major step backwards.” The bill would, among other negative consequences, “prevent the parole into the United States of many babies and children who are granted parole today in humanitarian situations…prevent family members from spending time with their dying loved ones… create chaos in the legal immigration system” by banning pending citizens to travel overseas.

For young people, the differences between these two bills could not be clearer. Nineteen year old Bernard Pastor, is a top student who arrived undocumented in the United States when he was 3 to escape persecution in Guatemala. After a minor fender bender last November, he was arrested and detained before being released in December because of deferred action.

Under the HALT Act, any such deferred action would be banned until January, 2013. Pastor would have likely been immediately deported to Guatemala, a country he has not known since he was very young. The DREAM Act would have offered the opposite result. If passed, Pastor would have been one of many talented young undocumented workers who would be offered the opportunity to live in and serve the United States. Pastor has since advocated for passage of the legislation since his release, even being called the bill’s “poster child.”

In June, the Senate held its first hearing on the DREAM Act (rescheduled from September 12, 2001). Stock testified, advocating for its passage, “The DREAM Act would allow young people who have grown up in this country, graduated from high school, been acculturated as Americans, and have no serious criminal record to go to college or serve in the military and thereby legalize their immigration status,” she read from her statement. “Those who oppose the DREAM Act often mistakenly repeat the popular misconception that these young people should just ‘get in line like everyone else.’ But without the DREAM Act, there is no line in which they can wait.”

In a statement, Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas perhaps put it best. “This is nothing more than a distraction from genuine efforts to improve our immigration system and through modest reforms like finally exacting the DREAM Act to give students the opportunity to achieve their full, God-given potential.”

In the hyper-partisan climate of a House of Representatives run by Republican extremists like Lamar Smith, politically designed bills such as the HALT Act have become routine. Though its extreme nature coupled with the need for the president’s signature make its passing unlikely, it still seems counterproductive to voice this in the immigration debate when such reasonable alternatives can be found in the DREAM Act. Distressing as it may be, there are still many in this country and in Congress who think that harnessing the hopes and contributions of bright, undocumented students is “backdoor amnesty” verging on “legalization temptation.”

Published in the The Nation | Read Article