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Dream Act

Congressman supports end of ‘dreamer’ policy, preaches sensible border security fix

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Alex Petroski

The heated debate over immigration is nothing new in the United States, or in Suffolk County for that matter, but the discussion has been enflamed and accelerated by a decision President Donald Trump (R) floated, walked back and ultimately left in limbo regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program this week. Zeldin addressed challenges with improving immigration policy during an exclusive interview with TBR News Media at the end of August, and also weighed in on the possible phaseout of DACA this week.

The DACA program was enacted in 2012 during former President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration as a temporary solution to the dilemma about how to handle the immigration status of individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally at a young age, rendering their decision to cross the border as out of their hands. The policy granted “dreamer” status to roughly 800,000 individuals, retroactively. This week, Trump announced via Twitter his intentions to phase out the program within six months, though few details were offered, and since then the president has backtracked, signaling to Congress he would like for them to come up with a solution.

“Many of these children involuntarily came to our country very young, have been here for a long time, go through our education system, love our country and are looking to stay here and greatly contribute to our economy and nation’s future,” Zeldin said in a statement. “What I struggle with the most is how you can possibly allow someone illegally in our country to be given preference over someone who is not in our country solely because that individual abroad is following the rules and respecting our laws, and as a result, they are not yet here.”

“If you want to come to America and pursue the American Dream, follow the rules.”

— Lee Zeldin

The decision by Trump has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle for both the seeming lack of compassion for the group of mostly young people who have made a life in the U.S. and know the country as their home, and for the flippant nature of making the announcement on social media. Zeldin said it is a challenging issue because dreamers have established a life in America and were brought here involuntarily, though he said allowing them special treatment creates an unfair dynamic for those attempting to come to the U.S. legally.

“I support legal immigration,” he said. “I oppose illegal immigration. If you want to com se to America and pursue the American Dream, follow the rules. If you commit a crime and are deported, don’t come back. Every nation’s backbone is its rule of law. It is great to pursue the American Dream and to consider yourself a dreamer and everyone in the United States legally should consider themselves dreamers.”

Zeldin said in his statement and in August he would be open to discussion for ways to repair what he said he views as a flawed immigration system.

Referring to Trump’s campaign rhetoric and statements he has made since taking office, Zeldin said he wished the conversation on immigration and border security could get past “build a wall” versus “don’t build a wall.” He criticized Trump for a lack of publicly stated details regarding a border wall, citing natural barriers like rivers and mountains, which already secure large portions of the U.S.-Mexican border.

“If we sat down with [Trump] and had a conversation and he says, ‘We should put a 30-foot wall in the middle of the Rio Grande,’ that would be different,” Zeldin said. The 1st CD representative said he would be in favor of strengthening existing fencing in areas, building a new barrier in vulnerable areas and even utilizing some electric fencing to secure the border.

When asked if he thought Trump had the ability to advance immigration reform in a bipartisan fashion, Zeldin said he wasn’t sure because he hadn’t spoken directly with Trump on the issue, and his public statements lack specifics.

Education advocates march into the office of state Sen. John Flanagan on Thursday calling for the passage of the New York State Dream Act. Photo by Phil Corso

The Smithtown office of state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) had a line going out the door last week as advocates called on him and his fellow lawmakers to pass the New York State Dream Act before legislative session ended.

Dream Act advocates congregate outside Sen. John Flanagan's office Thursday in prayer. Photo by Phil Corso
Dream Act advocates congregate outside Sen. John Flanagan’s office Thursday in prayer. Photo by Phil Corso

Various faith leaders from congregations across Long Island gathered in prayer outside Flanagan’s office on Thursday with hopes of nudging the recently appointed Senate majority leader to help pass the Dream Act before session ended June 17. The advocates held up signs in protest of the state’s sluggish pace in making the legislation a reality for the nearly 146,000 undocumented immigrants across New York who graduated from public high schools but are unable to access federally-funded financial aid for college.

The bill, which has passed in the Assembly in February by a vote of 87-45, would open up state aid for the students.

Peggy Fort, a retired teacher and social justice chair of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, stood in the crowd outside Flanagan’s office Thursday and said the state had to act before thousands of up-and-coming immigrant children are locked out of the higher education process.

“Allowing our New York State ‘dreamers’ who are full of courage, creativity and intellect to access funding for higher education is a way of ensuring the future of New York State,” she said. “It makes absolutely no sense to continue this policy of no action. But I think we will be able to turn that around.”

A June 2015 report from the Fiscal Policy Institute found there were 526,000 immigrants living on Long Island, making up 18 percent of the population and 20 percent of the economic output. Of those immigrants, almost 100,000 are undocumented — about half living in Suffolk County and half in Nassau.

Sister Rosalie Carven delivers petitions to state Sen. John Flanagan's Chief of Staff Ray Bernardo on Thursday. Photo by Phil Corso
Sister Rosalie Carven delivers petitions to state Sen. John Flanagan’s Chief of Staff Ray Bernardo on Thursday. Photo by Phil Corso

Victoria Daza, of workers advocacy group Long Island Jobs with Justice, said Flanagan was an ideal Long Island lawmaker to head up the Dream Act push, as his North Shore district encompasses educational hubs Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College. Daza said it was unacceptable that Flanagan has yet to publicly support the legislation in the four years since it was first introduced, leaving students to foot their full college bill with each passing year.

“The Dream Act cannot wait,” she said. “Education is a human right and these kids should not be excluded.”

Flanagan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Soon after a short prayer vigil outside, the throng of advocates marched into Flanagan’s office along with more than 100 petition signatures. Sister Rosalie Carven, a social justice coordinator with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, walked into the office with conviction before handing over the paperwork and asking Flanagan Chief of Staff Ray Bernardo to deliver their message.

“It can’t stop here. Everyone here is an advocate for the passage of this,” she said. “The time is now. The job has to get done. It’s discriminatory to keep kids out of higher education.”

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