Almost 200 undocumented young people from across the U.S. gathered in the Russell Senate Office building in Washington, D.C., today to argue for the passage of the DREAM Act and a stay on the deportation of the people who might qualify for it if it becomes law.
Dressed in college graduation caps and gowns with the colors and logos of many different universities on display, the undocumented youth heard testimony from some of their peers who are currently facing deportation, as well as an ‘invocation’ by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, and a ‘commencement address’ from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who recently revealed in the pages of New York Times Magazine that he was undocumented and entered the country illegally when he was a child.
Many of the young people who spoke echoed Vargas’ story of having to live a life in secret, avoiding the authorities and situations requiring legal documentation at all cost. The event’s ‘valedictorian’, Mandeep Chahal, is an undocumented immigrant born in India who is an honors student at UC Davis and has lived in California since she was six; nevertheless, she was scheduled to be deported after her mother was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last year. Chahal and her mother lived for months with electronic monitoring bracelets around their ankles, but last Tuesday, they were granted a reprieve by ICE after a Facebook campaign mobilized in favor of allowing Chahal to stay — and after ICE director John Morton issued a memo encouraging discretion on the part of immigration officials when deciding who to deport.
As The Florida Independent reported, there is no good estimate of how many people who might qualify for legalization under the DREAM Act are currently undergoing deportation proceedings. What is certain is that the Obama administration has been deporting more people per year than any other administration, and half of the people deported have committed no crime other than being in the country without authorization. The graduation ceremony came the day after the first Senate committee hearing on the DREAM Act, where two cabinet-level Obama administration officials, Dept. of Education secretary Arne Duncan and Dept. of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, testified in favor of the DREAM Act’s passage. In a press conference today, President Obama reiterated his support for the bill.
However, Chahal and other speakers at today’s ceremony repeatedly emphasized the power of the executive branch to alleviate the risk of deportation for law-abiding undocumented immigrants: “President Obama has made it clear that he fully supports the DREAM Act… and yet he hasn’t acted,” Chahal said. “He has the power to stop the deportations of people like me. He can bring relief so that no family has to go through what mine has. He can end our pain, but he still continues to deport DREAMers.”
Sen. Durbin also argued that the role of the executive branch is critical, but called Morton’s memo unprecedented: “They [the Obama administration] came up with this important memo, which for the first time puts in writing that they are going to establish a policy of deportation which will take into consideration those who will be eligible for the DREAM Act… we are going to hold them to this promise, that they are for education not deportation.”
Despite the support of Durbin and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority whip and leader of the Senate, respectively, the DREAM Act has little chance of becoming law this congressional term, given the Republican-controlled House’s general opposition to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Last week, House Judiciary Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he would introduce a bill invalidating the Morton memo, which would presumably mean that ICE would have no choice but to deport Vargas, Chahal and the other undocumented youth present at the ceremony.
Nevertheless, after the ceremony the ‘deportation class of 2011’ marched not towards the House of Representatives office buildings, but towards the White House.