Daniel Hemel Writes About a Pathway to Citizenship for 'Dreamers'

Candidate Kamala Harris had a plan to help Dreamers. Why not use it?

One of the high points of then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign came in June 2019, when the California Democrat rolled out a creative plan that would use executive action to provide a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Now, with more comprehensive immigration reform legislation stalled in Congress, Harris’s proposal provides a playbook for an administration searching for its next move.

Harris’s plan would use the Homeland Security secretary’s “parole-in-place” authority to overcome legal barriers that prevent many Dreamers from obtaining green cards — a first step on the path to U.S. citizenship. By invoking parole-in-place, Harris’s approach would soften the cruelty of existing immigration law, which in some cases requires Dreamers to live in effective exile for a decade if they are ever to gain lawful status in the country that they know as home. And the plan rests on solid legal ground, as even its opponents acknowledge. For example, the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for more restrictive immigration policies, published an analysis in 2020 concluding that it would be “next to impossible” to defeat Harris’s plan in court.

A year into the Biden presidency, the political calculus aligns with the moral and legal arguments in favor of Harris’s proposal. The administration’s “Plan A” for Dreamers — a bill that would provide a pathway to green-card status and eventual citizenship for 2.5 million immigrants who arrived in the country as children — passed the House last March, with nine House Republicans joining the entire Democratic caucus in support. But the legislation lacks a clear path forward in the Senate, where it faces a near-certain Republican filibuster. (Senate Democrats tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to create a carve-out from the filibuster for voting rights legislation, but they chose not to include the Dreamers in their push for procedural change.)

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