VOICES: Undocumented immigrants are political ping pong

I came to the United States 25 years ago as a permanent resident, without a dime but the determination to achieve the American dream. I enrolled in college within two years of my arrival. I completed college in three years, funding my education with the Pell grant and the state of New York’s tuition assistance program. After college, I moved on to law school. I graduated and passed the bar three years later. I was a licensed attorney by my seventh year in the United States. By my twelfth year, I have started my law practice focusing on helping first-generation immigrants and their families.

All these were possible by the opportunities available to me in the United States, in my solo quest for the gradually fading American Dream.

The opportunities I enjoyed have now become pipe dreams for most intending immigrants. For them, the American dream has become a perpetual nightmare, an unreachable goal. Undocumented immigrants have become the political football both parties use to score points, yet with no clear winner. The only party that loses year after year are the undocumented immigrants.

In my practice, I have watched many clients’ hopes shattered year after year while they relied on proposed immigration legislation that never became laws. I counsel clients not to put hope in proposed bills until the president signs them into laws. This counsel has remained true for over fifteen years of practice. But for people hanging by a string, living and existing within the fringes of society, they will grab any lifeline thrown at them, even if it is as flimsy as a spiderweb.

In 2012, President Obama, through executive action, gave a reprieve to children brought into the United States while they were under the age of 16 but have lived and resided in the U.S. for at least five years before 2012. The program is known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival. The recipients are called DREAMers.

DACA did not confer permanent residency or citizenship. It is a promise by the federal government to defer the removal or deportation of qualified applicants. During the deferment period, approved applicants receive employment authorization cards and social security numbers.

These enabled hundreds of thousands of recipients to obtain driver’s licenses for the first time, attend colleges, start businesses and live outside the shadows of illegality.

Since DACA’s inception, it has become the ground zero for the political battles on immigration. The program has gone through cycles of suspension, reinstatement, injunction, and uncertainty. It currently remains suspended by order of a Texas judge declaring it unconstitutional in July 2021. The judge issued this order not long after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Trump administration’s cancelation of DACA was “arbitrary and capricious.”

This court order prohibited the Department of Homeland Security from accepting and processing new DACA applications. Meanwhile, those with existing approvals are uncertain of their future. Their lives exist in limbo while they wait for lawmakers to save them.

Democrats and Republicans have made promises to this group. Yet, neither party is willing to spend a sizeable amount of political capital to solve the DACA debacle. Both parties see the plights of DREAMers as controversial, an issue that fires up their respective bases on opposite sides of the debate. Even Democrats do not consider the issue a political winner, especially since the DREAMers cannot vote. They offer no immediate political returns. So, Democrats have not exerted momentous efforts to solve the issue.

Last month, new hopes were dashed when senate parliamentarian ruled that congressional Democrats could not legally include immigration reform into the budget reconciliation bill. This decision echoed like a bomb within the undocumented immigrants’ community. It was like an earthquake with invisible victims.

A client asks me afterward, “What’s next? I have been waiting for 12 years.”

“Until a president signs an immigration bill, the wait continues,” I replied.

Emmanuel Olawale is an attorney based in Westerville, Ohio and the author of “The Flavor of Favor: Quest for the American Dream. A Memoir.”

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