Can the NY Dream Act Solve a National Immigration Nightmare?

Immigration Court is a nightmare by most accounts.  For respondents, or those forced to appear in deportation proceedings by the Department of Homeland Security, their whole future hangs in the balance and they may wait months to years to find out if they will be able to stay in the U.S. or be forcibly returned to their country of origin through deportation.  For judges, immigration court is an endless backlog of cases with complex legal issues that can take piles of documentation and hours of legal research to conclude.  A recent study by TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse) estimated that there are 267,752 cases pending resolution in immigration courts nationally as of December 2010, an all time high.  Last year, the New York Times reported that Immigration Judges hear as many as 1,200 cases per year each (three times that of a federal judge in district court).


Besides the obvious problems posed by the immigration court system strained past its workable limits, the NYC Immigration Court Observation Project (ICOP) has documented further obstacles and barriers to justice present in the immigration court system: lack of adequate interpretation, excessive time that people spend detained awaiting adjudications, a total lack of accommodations for respondents who suffer from mental illnesses, and others.  Proposals to correct the serious deficiencies in the immigration court system are gaining support, as evidenced by the recent American Bar Association’s report on a recommended overhaul of these administrative courts and calls by concerned advocates and policy makers for guaranteed legal representation for anyone fighting deportation in immigration court.


Despite the critical importance of enacting reforms, the largest barrier to justice for immigrants in court is the lack of legal defenses to deportation.  Once DHS brings you to immigration court and charges you with deportability, there are few options to stay legally in the U.S.  Growing up here or having U.S. citizen relatives will not save the majority of people from deportation because U.S. immigration law offers little opportunity to gain legal status and punishes people greatly for time spent here without permission from the U.S. government.


Beginning in 2001, the Dreamers, a growing movement of undocumented youth and their advocates, have sought to implement better immigration laws by regularly introducing the Dream Act into Congress.  Each time, our national legislators have turned it down, as the Senate most recently did in December 2010.  The Dreamers don’t quit because the Dream Act would give undocumented youth the chance to transform years spent as an undocumented kid growing up in the U.S. to an adult with a future here.  Instead of a looming day in immigration court and an eventual deportation order, these youth could look forward to a U.S. college degree or service in the U.S. military, followed by a green card.   Most paths to getting a green card still depend on immigrating through a close family relative (parent, spouse, or adult sibling) and that process can take as long as twenty years if you even have a relative who can petition for you.


The Migration Policy Institute estimated that there are about 1.9 million youth currently in the U.S. who could benefit from the Dream Act now or upon high school graduation.   Nationally, about 65,000 students graduate from U.S. high schools every year who could potentially participate in the conditional residency program that the Dream Act would offer.


While the U.S. Congress delays the Dream nationally, the 135,000 Dream Act eligible youth in New York are getting a shot at access to financial aid for higher education, driver’s licenses, state work authorization, and eligibility for state health insurance.


The NY Dream Act, introduced by State Senators Bill Perkins as S. 4179 on March 22, 2011, cannot grant NY undocumented youth conditional residency leading to U.S. citizenship because only the federal government can make laws granting immigration status.  But it can acknowledge that a broken immigration system denies New York State the contributions of its youth, who would graduate from college and pursue their dreams here.  While the federal government currently only guarantees most undocumented youth an eventual deportation order in immigration court, the NY Dream Act can replace this dead end with a brighter future.  Illinois and California are also in the process of putting forward their own states’ versions of Dream Acts.


The NY Dream Act faces a long stretch before it becomes law, and even then, will have to survive certain challenges to its constitutionality similar to the challenges being brought against the “Show Me Your Papers” legislation, SB1070, in Arizona.  The NY Dream Act, like the national proposal for the DREAM Act, would also exlude some youth who do not have high school diplomas or proficiency in English, or whose criminal records would make them ineligible.


The point is that young people, who have grown up in the U.S. and see the limitations of the current unwieldy immigration system that favors the one-size-fits-all remedy of approximately 400,000 yearly deportations, are fighting for a new solution.   And the NY Dream Act would both propel us towards a brighter future for all New Yorkers and steer us out of the stagnant backwaters of our nation’s failing immigration policies.



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