Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2015

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Dream Act not enacted in letter of law, but is in spirit


Tom Williams

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is interviewed by the Las Vegas Sun in his office in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

DREAM Act rally

Supporters of the DREAM Act held a rally at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Downtown Las Vegas on December 14 in an effort to gain Sen. John Ensign's support. Launch slideshow »

DREAM Act Rally

Adelia Vazquez, center, 17, a senior at Desert Pines High School, cheers during a rally Tuesday in downtown Las Vegas to support the DREAM Act. Launch slideshow »

Four months ago, Sens. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and 20 of their Democratic colleagues sent President Barack Obama a letter imploring him to stop deporting Dream Act students and military personnel.

It took a while for the White House to answer its mail.

Today, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano wrote back to Reid, informing him that the Obama administration had effectively decided to grant his request.

Napolitano didn’t specifically promise a moratorium on Dream Act deportations — those being illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, are deemed to be of strong moral character, are younger than 35 and are enrolled in college or the armed forces.

Instead, the Homeland Security and Justice departments are adopting a case-by-case review method: They’ll prioritize deporting individuals in “high priority cases, such as those involving convicted felons,” Napolitano wrote, the purpose being to “enhance public safety.”

Napolitano took pains to stress that the change in approach “will not provide categorical relief for any group,” and pointed out that that sort of prosecutorial discretion has been in the works at Homeland Security since it was first proposed in June.

But the wider message is that the Dream Act individuals are a low priority for deportation, and low priorities won’t be acted upon anytime soon.

Their response has been joyous.

“I am especially pleased about the impact these new policies will have on those who would benefit from the Dream Act,” Reid said in a statement today. “These young people are American in all but paperwork ... We lose a lot by sending them back to countries they do not know.”

Or as immigrant advocate and Rep. Luis Gutierrez — who came to Las Vegas to campaign for Reid last year — put it: “This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for.”

As far as policy goes, it’s certainly a sigh of relief for 18- to 35-year-old undocumented U.S. residents who have come to be known as Dreamers: They have no more rights under the law with this pronouncement, but they also don’t have to live in fear of deportation.

As far as Congress goes, it’s not terribly likely that the change in policy will spur the body to action on the Dream Act or any other part of immigration law anytime soon. Reid wasn’t able to get the Dream Act past the Senate last December when he had 59 Democrats at his disposal: Immigration has never split cleanly down the party line in either direction, and the attempt fell five votes short.

But as far as politics go? This will likely prove to have been a clutch move.

Obama has come under fire from Hispanic advocates because of his administration’s position on immigration.

As a candidate, Obama promised to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in his first year. That still hasn’t happened.

Immigration enforcement, however, has expanded modestly under Napolitano’s department: Since she took over from President George W. Bush’s chief Michael Chertoff, deportations have risen a few percentage points a year. (During fiscal 2010, 393,862 were deported, according to government stats.)

That’s not what most Hispanics who voted Democrat in 2008 were expecting.

“Mr. Obama must deliver. And he has not. That’s basically all I can say,” Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan activist group Hispanics in Politics told the Las Vegas Sun last month.

Just this week, it seemed like tensions were about to burst open, after the Obama administration staunchly defended its “Secure Communities” program over document-based allegations that Homeland Security had misled local communities as to how it planned to carry out the fingerprint-sharing operation. It’s helped the feds deport several thousand illegal immigrants every year.

Some immigrant activists called for a public apology from Obama and for him to fire Cecilia Munoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs and a top advocacy voice on immigration in the administration.

That’s not a good place to be heading into an election.

Immigration isn’t usually the top-priority issue for Hispanic voters, but it’s a core one for the group, and that’s important, especially in places like Nevada, where the growth of the Hispanic vote and steadily increasing turnout have created a pivotal electoral force.

Hispanics in Nevada have, in recent elections, voted about 70 percent Democratic. But it’s not a split Republicans have been willing to cede.

During the midterm election cycle, conservative pundit Robert Deposada aired ads urging Hispanics to sit out the election, protesting with their silence against Obama’s lack of action on comprehensive immigration reform.

This election cycle, the national Republican campaign committees have already released several ads targeting Spanish-language voters — this time to persuade them to vote GOP.

It’s happened in the not-so-distant past. Eight years ago, Bush pulled in over 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote (in Nevada, 39 percent of self-identifying Latino voters cast ballots for Bush).

If there’s ever been a field where the GOP could hope to replicate that success, it’s likely this year. There are at least three Hispanic lawmakers' names being tossed about for the Republican vice presidential pick: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.

Momentum is still on the Democrats’ side though — if they don’t screw up the relationship.

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