U.S. Sen. James Lankford introduced legislation Monday to provide a 15-year path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants.
Lankford, an Oklahoma City Republican, joined Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at a news conference to unveil the Succeed Act, a conservative iteration of 2010’s DREAM Act, which narrowly failed in the Senate.
“These are kids who literally do not have a home anywhere,” Lankford said.
The Succeed Act is the first attempt in the Senate to rectify a decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month to end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program in March. The program, created by former President Barack Obama through executive order in 2012, grants work permits to the children of undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements.
Under the Succeed Act, undocumented immigrants would be placed on a path to citizenship if they arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and before June 15, 2012. Tillis said it would cover most DACA beneficiaries.
The immigrants would be granted residency for five years if they pass strict criminal background checks, submit data to the Department of Homeland Security, pay all tax liabilities, are “of good moral character” and choose one of three career tracks. They can either serve in the military, pursue a degree or maintain gainful employment.
Immigrants would lose their residency status if they become dependent on government assistance, are convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, are unemployed for a year or refuse to enroll in either the military or college.
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“The bill would disqualify participants from eligibility if they receive the Earned Income Tax Credit,” said Ryan Patterson, a local immigration attorney, “a tax benefit that both conservative and liberal economists agree encourages people to work and seek out better jobs.”
After five years in the program, immigrants will go through another checkpoint to ensure they have either been gainfully employed for 48 months, graduated from college or served three years in the military. They also must maintain residency in the U.S., pay their taxes and demonstrate “good moral conduct.” If approved, they are granted another five years of residency. If not, they can be deported.
After 10 years in the program, immigrants can apply for legal permanent residency. Five years after that — or 15 years after they began the program — they can apply for citizenship.
In a nod to conservatives, the bill prevents immigrants in the program from sponsoring family members to come to the U.S., an attempt to crack down on so-called “chain immigration.”
Jessica Vazquez, a DACA beneficiary with DREAM Act Oklahoma, called the Succeed Act a disappointment and “step back from the bipartisan DREAM Act.”
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“I think something is better than nothing but when we have an opportunity to pass a clean DREAM Act with support in the House and Senate, we see this as a step back,” she said.
Vazquez, who recently returned from meetings about the DREAM Act on Capitol Hill, said the Succeed Act will leave out hundreds of thousands of young people who came to the U.S. when they were 16 or 17 years old. She said the 15-year wait period will make it harder for DACA recipients to obtain citizenship.
“They’re going to leave many, many Dreamers out of this and leave them vulnerable,” she said, using a common nickname for DACA recipients.
Patterson, the immigration attorney, is concerned a provision in the bill could lead Dreamers to sign away their due process rights.
“We are still awaiting the final text, but this bill would have Dreamers signing ‘waivers’ that could foreclose other available immigration options to them in the future,” he said. “The worst case scenario would be if the document waives a Dreamer’s rights to a fair and impartial hearing in front of an immigration judge in the future.”
Lankford has consistently taken a moderate stance on DACA, seeking to bridge a gap between Democrats outraged that DACA was ended and conservatives adamant in avoiding amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
“While I found a lot of people that agree with me in my statement that we should not hold children accountable for the actions of their parents, there are a lot of people that are very concerned about giving citizenship to the parents of those children and trying to reward them in any way,” Lankford said in an interview with The Oklahoman last week.
The Succeed Act is expected to be bundled with other immigration bills in the coming weeks or months. Lankford said that while he favors a stand-alone bill, there is little political appetite in the Senate for voting solely on the Succeed Act.
“There’s so many issues with immigration and it’s been so many decades since those issues have been addressed. Once we deal with one of them, we need to deal with many of them,” he said in the interview.
On Monday, Lankford said he had spoken to President Donald Trump about the bill and found him to be “very supportive.”