President Barack Obama’s administration says it will start accepting applications Wednesday from some immigrants to get a temporary reprieve from deportation. That’s under a controversial policy the administration is calling Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The immigrants won’t get a path to citizenship — distinguishing the policy from stalled legislation, known as the Dream Act, that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.) has been pushing for more than a decade. But an estimated 1.7 million young people will have their first shot at valid papers to live and work in the country. Durbin is planning to attend a Wednesday event at Chicago’s Navy Pier to help about 1,500 of these youths with the application. He told WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell that this is an important moment for them.
DURBIN: It is a leap of faith on their part. Many of them have lived in the shadows for years and now they’re stepping up to say to this government, “We’re here and we’re ready to follow your law.” I think it’s going to be a day that they’re going to remember for a long, long time.
MITCHELL: Yet, Senator Durbin, some immigrant advocates are calling the “deferred action” policy risky for the undocumented youths because they’d be revealing details about their immigration status — [and] biometrics for the first time, in many cases — to the same government department that could one day deport them. The next president could throw out President Obama’s policy as quickly as January. But you’re recommending that the youths apply anyway. Could you be putting them in danger?
DURBIN: I believe the fact that two out of three Americans believe President Obama did the right thing — that most everyone agrees that children should not be held responsible for the wrongdoing of their parents — argues that ultimately that, once they come forward, once they comply with the law and become part of the system, it won’t be reversed. And, if someone tries it, in either political party, if someone should try that in the future, I think there will be a strong public reaction in support of these young people and against efforts to rescind it.
MITCHELL: Some Republicans in Congress are criticizing the program’s cost. And at least one — Steve King, not too far away, in Iowa — is vowing to file a suit to try to force the administration to, in his words, “enforce the law.” What’s your response to him?
DURBIN: Congressman King of Iowa is notorious. He’s kept alive a tradition, which has been in America for a long time, of hating immigrants, resisting immigration, denying what America is today — a nation of immigrants. That’s his right. He can continue to. But let’s get to the bottom line. Let’s answer the question directly. These students are going to pay fees to cover all the costs to the federal government. So to argue that this is adding to our debt or deficit is just wrong.
MITCHELL: . . . Senator, how about the principle of enforcing the law as it stands — the rules enacted by Congress about who gets to stay in the U.S. and who doesn’t? The law says these young people are not supposed to be in the country.
DURBIN: Every day, at every level of government, prosecutorial discretion is used. In other words, the government, with the power to continue a lawsuit or to start a lawsuit, decides, “No, there are more important things to do with our resources to keep America safe.” President Obama has made a decision. These young people who are here, being brought here as children, who have no significant criminal record of any kind and are ready to come forward and be part of the system, should not be a high priority for taking people out of our country. I think he’s right. He’s using prosecutorial discretion — the enforcement decision — which every government has used and has been recognized by the Supreme Court.
MITCHELL: Some immigrant advocates are criticizing the timing of President Obama’s “deferred action” policy. He could have taken this step, after all, as soon as he took office in 2009. So these advocates are calling it a play for Latino support just months before he’s up for reelection. What do you think?
DURBIN: The president is in a terrible situation now. Anything he does this year will be viewed in this context of the political campaign. I know where Barack Obama stands. He was a cosponsor of the Dream Act. He worked for its passage. He voted for it. And he’s told me from the start that he will sign it as president of the United States, unlike Mitt Romney, who has promised to veto it. Two years ago, I said to the president, “If we can’t pass it in the Senate, because of the Republican filibuster, will you at least protect these young people from deportation until we can pass it?” And he said he would. I think he’s kept his word and he’s been consistent.
MITCHELL: The Obama administration, nevertheless, is deporting people at a record pace — about 400,000 a year. Has this president done all he could for undocumented immigrants — the roughly 10 million people living and working in the shadows in this country — and for their families?
DURBIN: Well, of course, there are deportations and there must be. In some cases there are people who are dangerous to America, living here illegally with a criminal record or some major problem that brings them to the attention of our government. And, in those circumstances, every president has a responsibility to keep America safe. I’ve never heard anyone argue that these Dream Act students are a danger to America. The president has made this decision. I think it is the right decision. And, ultimately, he has to depend on Congress to pass immigration reform. There’s only so much the president can do on his own. I think we should and I hope we can do it on a bipartisan basis.