With or without Congress, immigration reform moves along

DREAMers and parents take an oath in a mock citizenship ceremony during a "United we Dream," rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, sending a signal to the House of Representativesâ?? GOP leadership as they go into their meeting that afternoon to discuss immigration reform with their caucus. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

One year ago, thousands of young undocumented immigrants across the country started lining up for a program that would allow them stay in the country legally -- a program President Obama enacted administratively in the absence of congressional action.

Since then, more than 500,000 people have applied Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and more than 400,000 of them have been accepted into it, giving them two years to stop worrying about being deported as well as the freedom to work legally. States in the past year have shaped their own policies around the program while waiting for more federal action.

The debate over comprehensive immigration reform, however, doesn't appear to be over in Congress, based on remarks from Republicans this month. And one of the biggest GOP proponents of immigration reform suggested this week that if Congress doesn't act, Mr. Obama could make more immigration policy decisions on his own.

"I believe that this president tempted, will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, to issue an executive order as he did for the Dream Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen," Rubio said in an interview Tuesday on WFLA radio's "The Morning Show with Preston Scott." Immigration reform advocates have, in fact, called on Mr. Obama to halt his aggressive deportation policies while Washington hashes out a bill.

Rubio was one of the four Republicans in the Senate who worked with four of their Democratic colleagues to draft a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The measure managed to pass in the Senate, but Rubio has lost some political capital over the issue, and House GOP leaders say they're not willing to put the bill up for the vote.

Still, they're not abandoning the issue all together, and town hall meetings with constituents this August has served as a sort of barometer for GOP support.

"I think the Senate made tremendous progress," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said in a meeting last week with the Modesto, Calif., Chamber of Commerce. "It was done bipartisan, and I thought that would be enough to get the House moving forward."

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., took some heat from his constituents earlier this summer for supporting immigration reform efforts, but he nevertheless expressed his support for the Senate bill at a recent forum.

"I believe that the pathway that the Senate bill has laid out is a reasonable pathway," he said. "I think when you look at having to go through background checks, having to pay a fine, having to make sure that your tax liabilities are paid, making sure that you're in a provisional status for a period of time, where you have to learn English, you have to show that you've got a job -- there's a lot of safeguards here."

House Republican leaders have endorsed a "step-by-step" approach to immigration legislation, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., even backing a Republican version of the Dream Act -- the policy proposal that would effectively write into law Mr. Obama's policy of letting well-qualified undocumented youth stay in the country legally.

Still, those opposed to immigration reform aren't backing down. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, attended a "Stop Amnesty Now" event on Monday in Virginia, near Cantor's district, and railed against immigration policies he said would "benefit the elitists, political power brokers, employers of illegals."

While Congress continues its debate, undocumented youth have shown a great deal of enthusiasm for DACA. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) this week published new findings on the program, showing that nearly half of the undocumented youth eligible for the program applied. By comparison, the MPI's Michael Fix noted Wednesday, when a path to citizenship was offered for undocumented immigrants in starting in 1986, just about 20 percent of those eligible applied in the first year.

MPI policy analyst Sarah Hooker said the application rate is "quite impressive" but noted that "substantial barriers" remain for those who haven't -- such as the $465 application fee. The organization estimates that 35 percent of currently DACA-eligible youth live with families with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, while two-thirds live with families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

MPI also estimated that there are 423,000 undocumented youth who meet the age requirement for DACA but not the educational requirement -- eligible applicants, if they're not an honorably-discharged veteran, must be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or have earned a GED.

At least one state is taking steps to increase the number of students who meet those eligibility requirements: New York City officials announced last month they plan to spend $18 million over the next two years on adult education classes and GED programs specifically for undocumented workers, so they can qualify for DACA. The city is making the investment since existing adult education programs in the city are already at capacity.

"We can't let the opportunity... fall short because we didn't do what we need to do," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told the New York Daily News. "We're talking about children who were brought here by their parents... They're New Yorkers, for God's sakes."

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