Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced Friday their plans to introduce the BRIDGE Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide three years of provisional protected status to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
The senators’ announcement comes amid anticipation of President-elect Donald Trump terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides undocumented recipients with a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation for two years.
Under the BRIDGE Act, DACA recipients (and those without DACA who would qualify for similar legal protections) could apply for provisional protected status after their DACA expires, as long as they pay a fee, receive a criminal background check, and meet all eligibility requirements. The status created by the BRIDGE Act, which would not be amnesty or citizenship, would be good for three years from enactment.
Should the law fail to pass the GOP-held Congress, young, undocumented immigrants will once again find themselves—and their status in the United States—in limbo.
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Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient who works for an immigration advocacy organization, told Rewire that five years ago he was graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in political science that he never expected to be able to use. His degree simply hung on his wall until President Obama’s deferred actions in 2012.
“Back then there was no DACA and no indication that DACA would be a thing,” he said. “DACA enabled so many people to pursue higher education and to do something with the higher education they received. It was life changing—and that’s the main thing to take into account. Terminating DACA isn’t just about immigration or the workforce. We need to remember these are people’s lives we’re talking about; we’re talking about people’s livelihoods.”
Trump vowed on the campaign trail to terminate the program, which has benefitted more than 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants. In a recent Time interview, however, Trump gave some indication of a softening stance.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump said in the interview. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Unconvinced that Trump will maintain DACA, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with the president-elect in New York on December 7 to deliver a letter co-signed by 14 other mayors urging him to continue DACA “until Congress modernizes our immigration system and provides a more permanent form of relief for these individuals.”
This uncertainty is exactly the problem for DACA recipients like Escalante.
“We’re at a very strange point in time where we know the immigration promises Trump made and we’re hearing troubling things from the upcoming administration, but there is no clarity being offered in terms of the future,” said Escalante. “There is no certainty. What I do know is that if we terminate the program without any alternative, it’s going backwards and it’s a very dangerous path that no lawmaker should support. Because what we’re talking about is putting people’s lives in limbo indefinitely. That’s not leadership; that’s straight up shameful.”
While the BRIDGE Act will offer some protection, it is only provisional and, presumably like DACA, it can be stripped away with little warning. What has been offered to undocumented immigrants routinely, with both DACA and now the BRIDGE Act, is conditional and temporary at best.
Without any real legislative solution, the United States is “wasting a tremendous source of talent,” Escalante said.
“More importantly, it would be an assault on people who were made promises by this country, this government, and by lawmakers that they would be protected and that their desire to contribute to this country and move forward with it would be honored,” he said.
If the BRIDGE Act fails to pass and DACA continues to be threatened by the Trump administration, not only do so-called DACA-mented immigrants have to worry about their educational and career opportunities vanishing, they will be left wondering how the information they handed over to the government will be used by the Trump administration, which has plans to immediately deport as many as three million undocumented immigrants.
Most people are unaware of how much information needs to be submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to apply for DACA. It’s not unusual for an application to be accompanied by hundreds of pages of personal information, proving an undocumented immigrant’s identity, their immigration status, that they were in the United States before turning 16, that they were in the country when DACA was enacted, their status as student or military at the time DACA was enacted, and that they have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2012.
The process requires undergoing a background check, providing biometrics to USCIS, and handing over school records, medical records, employment records, along with every address at which an applicant has ever lived and the addresses of family members.
While the implications of handing over this information to Trump may just be dawning on U.S. citizens, people like Escalante have been aware of the potential dangers for some time. This is not the first time Escalante’s personal information has been threatened.
The National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed a petition in June before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of four people affected by a court order demanding the Department of Justice turn over the personal information of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants. Escalante was one of those four people.
“[U.S. District Judge] Andrew Hanen already tried to get the information of those who benefited from this program—and this was well before the election,” Escalante said. “Our information has been at risk, even though all of this [information] was supposed to be private and protected and not used as a database.”
The information handed over to USCIS by those seeking DACA was done so in good faith for temporary relief from deportation, Escalante said. Those seeking DACA protections knew their status was temporary and that they would be subject to another background check and anything else USCIS called for to renew DACA. They understood that none of this would lead to a pathway to citizenship. What they did not know, Escalante said, was that giving USCIS all of this information could put a target on their backs.
“We did all of these things for two years of temporary status because the alternative was to remain in limbo because of Congress’ failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform,” Escalante said. “We had to prove that we wanted to be here, that we’ve been here. We handed over our life stories in hopes that this two-year program would benefit us, and now everything is up in the air and we are all threatened.”