WASHINGTON -- Leading Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), called on the president on Wednesday to stop deporting undocumented young people who grew up in the United States.
A letter signed by 22 Senate Democrats asks President Barack Obama to use his executive authority to prevent deportation of young people who would have benefited from the DREAM Act, a bill that failed in the upper chamber last year. The legislation would have allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to stay, provided they kept a clean record and either enrolled in college or joined the military.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her Democratic co-signers said in the letter that they will try to push to pass the DREAM Act through the Senate this session. But facing strong opposition from the Republican-led House, the senators argued the president should move in the meantime to help DREAM Act-eligible students and military service members.
"Current law unfairly punishes thousands of young people who grew up here and know only America as their home, holding them back from making a contribution to our country's military and economy," Gillibrand said in a statement within the message to Obama. "These young people deserve better."
Fellow New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leading Democrat on immigration, sent a separate letter to the Obama administration on Thursday with a similar thrust.
The White House has pledged support for the bill. But the administration has been unreceptive to requests to block DREAM Act-eligible young people from deportation. Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano said her agency would stay the course on immigration, even if it meant deporting students who would be protected under the legislation.
"I am not going to stand here and say that there are whole categories that we will, by executive fiat, exempt from the current immigration system -- as sympathetic as we feel towards them," she said at a recent appearance. Still, Napolitano added that cracking down on undocumented young people is "not the priority."
But the Senate Democrats, along with a coalition of House Democrats and immigrant rights groups, argue that Obama does have the legal right to stop certain deportations. The administration says it uses discretion in immigration enforcement to prioritize expelling the "worst of the worst," but Immigration and Customs Enforcement also deports many undocumented immigrants who are never convicted of a crime.
Many young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act end up in removal proceedings, despite claims that they are not the priority of immigration enforcement.
The letter from Senate Democrats calls for the president to grant "deferred action" to young people who meet the requirements that would allow them to avoid deportation under the bill. The letter was also signed by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and others.
"We strongly believe that DREAM Act students should not be removed from the United States," the letter reads, "because they have great potential to contribute to our country and children should not be punished for their parents' mistakes."