Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Immigration & Public Justice, Part II: Undocumented Residents Brought to the United States as Children

Julia Stronks and Aaron Korthius


July 6, 2012

By Julia Stronks and Aaron Korthius

This is the second in a series of four articles exploring specific aspects of immigration reform.

There are almost one million undocumented people living in the United States who were brought to the country by their parents before they were 16 years old. Many speak English as their native language and have never known another home; many have graduated from high school and want to go to college or serve in the military. We often think of these students as Mexican, but a significant number are also from Asia, Africa and South America.

On June 15, President Barack Obama announced that, using “prosecutorial discretion,” his administration will no longer deport qualified undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as minors, allowing them instead to apply for temporary work permits. This controversial move is just the beginning of a policy debate about how to achieve justice in regard to the children and families of undocumented immigrants. No matter who wins the November presidential election, Christians have to be ready to speak clearly to both parties about what we believe to be good policy in this area.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has been proposed by members of Congress from both parties, in different forms, over the past 10 years. Its initial presentation was a joint Senate bill drafted by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). This bill granted temporary residency and the opportunity to later apply for permanent residence to undocumented residents up to age 25 who had been brought to the United States before the age of 16 and met certain conditions, such as completing military service or attending a four-year college.  

Despite support from many in both parties, the bill has failed in Congress every time it has been introduced. The anti-immigrant fervor in our country seemed to kill the possibility of a DREAM Act, until two things happened. First, President Obama’s “prosecutorial-discretion” decision accomplished a version of the DREAM Act goals. Second, Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) proposed the Studying Toward Adjusted Residency Status (STARS) Act, which would cancel deportation of undocumented students headed to college, provided they had good moral character, were under 16 when they entered the U.S. and were under age 19 at the time of application. Many anticipate that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will soon introduce a similar bill in the Senate. 

In part one of our immigration series, we referenced six principles put forth by evangelical leaders on both the right and the left. These principles include respect for the rule of law and consideration for children brought into the country by their parents. We believe that all of the residency policies directed toward young people and supported by President Obama, Rep. Rivera and Sen. Rubio are consistent with the biblical call to justice. The people impacted by these policies have not broken any laws themselves, and they know only this country as home. As conservative, Christian commentator Michael Gerson has said, there is a strong intuitive and moral argument that we should not punish children for their parents’ sins.  Furthermore, as a practical matter, there is evidence to suggest that those who qualify for these policies will build up our nation. They have already proven themselves to be law-abiding and hard-working; they will make a long-term contribution.

The strongest argument against these policies relates to whether or not these undocumented residents will take jobs away from people legally in the United States. Even in this time of unemployment, however, there is little evidence that this concern has merit. One UCLA study predicts that the economic impact of granting residency to those who qualify for the DREAM Act will be of great benefit to the United States. Over the course of their lives, these young people are expected to contribute between $1.4 and $3.5 trillion to our economy, and they are unlikely to use a disproportionate amount of social services.

Public justice calls for a residency program for children of undocumented residents. Whether this program is the DREAM Act or a similar program, Christians should support the bi-partisan effort to welcome these young people who have nowhere else to call home.

—Julia K. Stronks has a law degree and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Aaron Korthuis is beginning work in Honduras for the Association for a More Just Society; he plans to attend law school in a year.

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