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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Immigration: Great struggle for just policies

The following article was prepared by Ashley McKinless, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

On August 5, the U.S. government announced that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was requiring all jurisdictions across the country to participate in the Secure Communities (S-Comm), whereby fingerprints taken at the time of processing in local, state, and federal jails are automatically sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be checked for the arrested person's immigration status. Several states – Illinois, Massachusetts, New York – and the District of Columbia have declined to participate in S-Comm.

Two weeks later, following an outcry from immigrants' organizations and their allies, the Obama administration made public an interagency process to review the 300,000 plus cases in deportation proceedings. This process will identify low-priority non-criminal cases that should not be prosecuted under an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, as well as cases that may be eligible for actual immigration benefits. The process will focus the administration's resources on the removal of high-priority cases, such as convicted felons and individuals who pose a serious threat to national security. The administration was clear, however, that this decision would not change the need to reform immigration laws.

In May, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was reintroduced in the Senate after failing to overcome a filibuster last December. Since it was first crafted in 2001, the DREAM Act has been refashioned and amended to gain wider support. Changes were made to the most recent version of the bill in an attempt to gain the Republican support needed to reach 60 votes: In the 2010 version the maximum age of those who could seek to benefit from the bill was decreased from 35 to 30 years, the period of "conditional residency" required before one could become a legal permanent resident (LPR) was increased from six to 10 years, and instead of an LPR being immediately eligible for naturalization, he or she would have to wait another three years for that process to begin.

But the most significant change made to the DREAM Act over its 10-year history was the result of a strategic shift made in 2007, when lawmakers attempted to attach it as an amendment to the defense spending authorization bill. At a time when the war in Iraq was escalating and recruitment was down, then co-sponsors Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) proposed an additional path to legal status for undocumented youth besides the pursuit of higher education: two years of military service. Sen. Durbin stated, "Tens of thousands of well-qualified potential recruits would become eligible for military service for the first time. They are eager to serve in the armed services, and under the DREAM Act, they would have a very strong incentive to enlist because it would give them a path to permanent legal status."

This move won over the Department of Defense, and the military option remains as a standard part of the bill today. However, it also became a cause for disagreement among those who have staunchly supported the broader aims of the bill. Many worry that given the prohibitive cost of higher education in this country—and the fact that the "Dreamers" would not be eligible for federal financial aid nor in-state tuition in all but 12 states—joining the military will become the de facto choice for undocumented youth seeking LPR status. And while the bill only calls for two years of service, the minimum enlistment obligation for the military is eight years, in which they would likely be deployed.

For these reasons, a number of faith communities and DREAM activists have called for a bill with "no military strings attached." The Mennonite Central Committee continues to support the passage of the bill, but states it "would be strengthened with the addition of an option to serve for two years in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or to perform comparable volunteer service with a relief, development, and/or peacebuilding organization." The American Friends Service Committee echoes this call, advocating for the addition of vocational program and community service alternatives, access to greater funding for education, and a conscientious objection clause for those who choose the military enrollment option. VAMOS UNIDOS, a group of Latino working youth in New York, has withdrawn support for the bill as it stands with a "militarization component."

But others within the movement, especially younger activists and potential DREAM participants, view the protestations of their allies as "overstated and paternalistic." José Luís Marantes, an organizer at the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Students Working for Equal Rights, stated that the act is "not about forcing people down that [military] path" and that Dreamers respect the desire of their peers to serve their country in the military. Even those who do not like the military option worry that pushing for another amendment might derail the entire bill and call for unified support for the present version. While Maryknoll understands these concerns, we continue to advocate for peaceful civil service as an alternative path to legal status and a conscientious objection clause to be added to the DREAM Act.

Faith in action:

Lawmakers and faith leaders recently announced the DREAM Act Sabbath campaign that will take place this fall. On September 23, 24, and 25, congregations and individuals in churches, mosques, and synagogues nationwide will be invited to focus a service or part of a service on the DREAM Act. Visit the website of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition to sign up to participate and check out a packet which will include theological reflections, sermon starters, stories of DREAM students, bulletin inserts, myths and facts about the Act, and a petition that people can sign to support the DREAM Act.

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