David M. Keepnews, PhD, JD, RN, FAAN is an Associate Professor in the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. Dr. Keepnews, an expert on health care systems and health policy, currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Policy, Politics & Nursing Practice, a quarterly journal.
Immigration policy remains a hot-button issue in the United States, with no apparent progress toward resolution, particularly on the status of undocumented immigrants. However, despite broadly divergent views on immigration policy, one might hope that a degree of national consensus could be achieved on the status of some undocumented immigrants. Common sense and a spirit of fairness should drive agreement that people who came to the U.S. as children—who generally had no say in their parents’ decisions on whether and how to come here—and who have led productive lives here should be entitled to a straightforward path to resolve their own legal status and achieve U.S. citizenship.
Unfortunately, common sense and fairness have not ruled the day on this issue so far. On December 18, the Senate failed to end a filibuster of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act would have provided conditional status and a path to citizenship to young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, who have been here for at least 5 years, and who completed at least two years of college or military service.
Several attempts over the past decade have been made to provide relief to this group of immigrants. The reach of these proposals has narrowed as compromises were sought to ensure passage. But ultimately even these efforts to ensure sufficient support for the DREAM Act were unsuccessful this year. The Act passed in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 55 members voted to end debate on the DREAM Act so that it could move to a vote, unfortunately falling short of the 60 votes needed under current Senate rules.
The case of Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a San Francisco nursing student, helps to illustrate the absurdity—and cruelty—of the types of problems that the DREAM Act could have helped to resolve. Li was born in Peru to parents who had fled China. He came to the U.S. with his parents on tourist visas at age 12. After their subsequent application for political asylum was denied, a deportation order was issued against the Lis. (Steve Li, who was 14 years old at the time, maintains that he was unaware of his family’s legal status).
Li subsequently completed high school and enrolled in nursing school at San Francisco City College. On the morning September 15, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, seeking to carry out the deportation order against the Lis, took Steve Li and his parents into custody. His parents were later released and placed on electronic monitoring. Steve Li was detained and soon moved to an ICE facility in Arizona, where he spent two months awaiting deportation to Peru—the country of his birth, which he and his immigrant parents had left as a child, and in which he has no family or friends. Following a public outcry over his case, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a private bill on his behalf, effectively staying deportation proceedings temporarily. Had the DREAM Act passed, Li would have been provided a path to remaining in the U.S. legally and continuing his work toward becoming an RN.
Some people may choose to argue about some of the choices that parents such as Steve Li’s made for themselves and their children. But Steve Li made some choices of his own—choices which everyone should be able to support, such as the choice to enroll in nursing school with a dream of devoting his energies and skills to serving underserved communities. Because of the U.S. Senate’s failure to act, we may lose out on the opportunity to put Steve Li’s talents and commitment to work.
Li’s case has drawn widespread attention, which he has—to his credit—used to leverage broader public awareness of the need to resolve the legal limbo that faces hundreds of thousands of students and graduates. Most may not face imminent deportation, but they live with the ongoing awareness that they could be deported to homelands they may remember only dimly, if at all. On a day-to-day basis, undocumented students lack access to resources available to most other students, such as federal student loans. Moreover, many undocumented immigrant students who complete studies in licensed professions face an additional dilemma when they complete school: their immigration status may prevent them from eligibility for licensure. This is currently the case, for example, with most undocumented nursing school graduates, whose ability to be licensed and thus to practice their profession could have been resolved had the DREAM act passed.
The Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM act deprives us all of the contributions of thousands upon thousands of young people who may be unable to serve their communities as nurses, physicians, engineers, scientists, teachers, or in myriad other roles. This is not only a tragedy for these individuals—it is a tragedy for the U.S.
Thousands of activists worked tirelessly to mobilize into networks of activists to win support for the DREAM Act, including many young immigrants who took the risk of publicly identifying themselves in order to give their cause a human face. The defeat of the DREAM Act is a setback for the county as a whole but, fortunately, the energies of these young Americans and their supporters will ensure that this issue stays alive and that Congress will have other opportunities to finally do the right thing on this issue.