With Dreamers' status still in question, faith leaders call for Congressional action

U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas

ENID, Okla. — Faith leaders are urging Congress to pass legislation to protect an estimated 690,000 DACA recipients, about 7,000 of them in Oklahoma, after the House on Tuesday passed HR 6, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019.

DACA background

HR 6, by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., passed the House by a vote of 237-187 on Tuesday, but has long odds of making it through the Republican-controlled Senate as the two parties continue to differ over a balance of border security and provisions for so-called "Dreamers."

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), was a 2012 law that allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children to register for a renewable two-year deferment of any immigration action against them, and to receive a Social Security number and the ability to obtain a driver’s license and to legally work in the United States.

Last January, President Trump proposed a 12-year path to citizenship for DACA recipients and those who would be eligible for the program — about 1.8 million immigrants, in all. His plan also called for $25 billion to build a border wall and other security measures, and would have curtailed legal immigration into the country.

That proposal faced stiff opposition, both from Republicans who saw the path to citizenship as amnesty, and from Democrats who were opposed to the border wall and curtailing legal immigration.

Congressional opposition

HR 6 likewise faces opposition among congressional Republicans over funding for border security and what they see as amnesty for Dreamers.

Of Oklahoma's House delegation, the sole Democrat, Rep. Kendra Horn, voted for HR 6, while Republican Reps. Tom Cole and Frank Lucas voted against it. Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern did not vote on the bill.

In their opposition to HR 6, Cole and Lucas outlined what likely would be Republican arguments against the bill, were it to come before the Senate.

Cole, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, laid the blame on Congress for not adequately addressing the DACA issue, while speaking on the House floor Monday.

"It was Congress that failed in the first place to enact appropriate laws concerning people who arrived here, through no fault of their own, as children," Cole said. "It was Congress that failed to act on a permanent, workable solution when President Obama initiated the program in 2012."

But, Cole objected to what he described as "blanket amnesty" in HR 6.

"While I, too, want to see a solution for DACA recipients, I don’t think this bill is the appropriate solution," Cole said. "It provides incentives for people to keep crossing the border illegally, and for criminal enterprises to continue to use minors to sneak inside this country illegally knowing that their actions may well be wiped away in a few years."

Lucas, in an email to the News & Eagle, likewise said the current immigration system "is broken," but balked at what he termed amnesty provisions in HR 6.

“The bill brought forth by House Democrats only exacerbated our nation’s immigration problem, providing sweeping amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants," Lucas said. "The American Dream and Promises Act passed by the House grossly ignored the humanitarian and security crisis at the Southern border."

Lucas called instead for a solution to DACA that is paired with "comprehensive visa reform and the necessary measures our officials and agents needed in order to secure our border."

"In order to appropriately and responsibly address our system’s problems, we must first tackle the root cause,” Lucas said.

Faith leaders supporting HR 6

Several denominations have spoken out in favor of HR 6, urging the Senate to pass it, or a similar measure. Others have stopped short of supporting HR 6 specifically, but call on Congress to provide a path to legal status for Dreamers.

Shannon Fleck, executive director of Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC), said in response to HR 6 passing the House, the OCC "stands in support of legislation that protects Dreamers and DACA recipients in the United States."

"These individuals were brought to the U.S. as children and only know this country as their home," Fleck said. "The threat of removal and deportation has inflicted great pain in the Dreamer community, and we stand in support of their presence and worth as members of this country."

Several denominations, including the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued statements either before or after Tuesday's vote urging passage of the bill into law.

In a May statement to the House Judiciary Committee during its markup of HR 6, the Episcopal Church made protection for Dreamers a matter of faith, reiterating a September 2017, statement by Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry.

"For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, our Christian values are at stake," Curry said in the letter. "Humane and loving care for the stranger, the alien, and the foreigner is considered a sacred duty and moral value for those who would follow the way of God."

In a March 15 open letter the USCCB urged passage of HR 6 to protect "the dignity of every human being" by protecting Dreamers.

"We recognize and admire these individuals as contributors to our economy, academic standouts in our universities, and leaders in our parishes," the bishops wrote. "It is both our moral duty and in our nation’s best interest to protect them and allow them to reach their full God-given potential."

Bishop Joe Vásquez, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, applauded Tuesday's House vote on HR 6 as "a big step for Dreamers ... who have called the United States home but have been working and living in uncertainty for years.”

Faith leaders call for action on Dreamers

Oklahoma's largest single denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), hasn't taken a position on HR 6 specifically.

Brian Hobbs, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma communications director, said for Southern Baptists in Oklahoma, that would require passage of a resolution at their annual meeting, which will occur this fall.

But, the SBC as a whole, which represents more than 47,000 churches and 15 million members, did pass a resolution titled "On Immigration" at the convention's annual meeting last June in Dallas.

While not supporting amnesty, the Messengers to the convention cited scriptural commands to "treat immigrants with the same respect and dignity as those native born," that "meeting the material needs of 'strangers' is tantamount to serving the Lord Jesus Himself" and that "any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Noting "seven years of continued policy gridlock" without "substantive changes in the immigration system that would make it more just, humane, efficient, and orderly," the SBC urged elected leaders to act on "securing our borders and providing a pathway to legal status" for Dreamers, and affirmed "the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status."

Eric Costanzo, pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, spoke in favor of a path to Dreamers' legal status at a press conference last February with, among others, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Speaking with the News & Eagle Thursday, Costanzo referred to prepared comments on his blog written after that press conference, where he said the Christian community will be judged on how it responds to the needs of Dreamers.

"They have heard about Christ’s compassion; and they are appealing to His followers for help," Costanzo wrote. "They have heard that our Bible commands us in dozens of places to seek justice for the immigrant who resides among us. They are asking us to speak out on their behalf.

"I believe history will judge us on this," he wrote. "If we fail to do right by these young people, our children and grandchildren will ask us why. I choose to not only be on the right side of history on these issues, but more importantly where I believe the Lord would have us be, standing alongside the marginalized and oppressed."

Chances in the Senate

While faith leaders call for action to protect Dreamers, chances that resolution will come through the current version of HR 6 are slim.

Skopos Labs, a predictive analysis firm based in New York City, gave the bill a 38 percent chance of making it into law after it passed the House on Tuesday, due to language surrounding the issue of amnesty and Republicans' concerns over border security.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in an email to the News & Eagle the focus should be on the border — not the 690,000 actively-enrolled DACA recipients who face possible deportation.

“The current crisis is at our border — not with DACA — and we should be focused on building a wall and closing immigration loopholes,” Inhofe wrote.

Lankford has been more supportive of a path to legal status, and has been vocal in calling for bipartisan solutions that include both border security and protection for Dreamers.

Lankford told the News & Eagle last April he would like to see a path to full naturalization for DACA recipients and DACA-eligible immigrants, and last February co-sponsored, with six other Republican senators,The Secure and Succeed Act, which called for $25 billion for border security measures and a path to legal status for DACA recipients.

“These kids were riding along with their parents and didn’t know what their parents were doing,” Lankford said of Dreamers last April, “and they shouldn’t be held accountable for their parents’ actions.”

Kelly Ferguson, spokesperson for Lankford, said Thursday the senator remains focused on the issue, but did not comment specifically on HR 6.

“Senator Lankford strongly believes that our immigration system needs to be updated with the priorities of ensuring our borders are secure, families stay together, and that our legal immigration system reflects the values and priorities of our nation," Ferguson said. "He will continue to pursue bipartisan solutions to these and other issues facing our country. As he’s said many times before, it’s past time to address our broken immigration system.”

HR 6 currently is not set for consideration in the Senate. Two other Senate bills also address DACA — one Republican, one Democrat — but have yet to be passed: the "Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and Emergency Act," by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and the "Dream Act of 2019" by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.

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