Senate Address Of Senator Leahy On The Senate's Immigration Debate, And The Dreamers

As the Senate debates the fate of our Nation’s Dreamers this week, an uncontestable truth underpins our discussion:  We are a Nation of immigrants.  Unless you are Native American, you come from a line of people who come from somewhere else.  More than in any country on Earth, this simple fact is a defining characteristic of our national identity.  Throughout our history immigrant communities have greatly enriched our Nation; their individual stories have become the American story.  Out of many, we have become one.

Sadly, at times we have forgotten who we are.  In the late 1800s, we passed laws excluding Chinese immigrants.  During World War II, we turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. We know today that these were tragic mistakes, fueled by ill-informed, xenophobic rhetoric.  Mistakes that we must never let be repeated.

Yet now, in 2018, I am concerned that we are hearing echoes of past mistakes.  Anti-immigrant voices, armed with the same shameful fearmongering, are attempting a comeback in our country.  In recent months, Dreamers have been regularly disparaged.  Some have even suggested Dreamers pose a risk of terrorism or have links to international drug trafficking.

These absurd depictions would be laughable if they weren’t so damaging.  Thankfully, most Americans know better.  Dreamers are not threats to our national security; not a single one has been suspected of terrorist activity.  Nor do Dreamers present a threat to public safety.  Far from it. By definition, Dreamers are law-abiding strivers who seek only to contribute to our country.  Brought here as children, Dreamers are now our neighbors, our first responders, and our teachers.  Nearly a thousand serve in our armed forces, risking their lives to defend the only country they have ever known as home.

I will never forget the story of one Dreamer who wrote to me last year.  Dr. Juan Conde is a DACA recipient and a resident of Vermont.  He was born in Mexico and brought to the United States as a young child by his mother.  In 2007, his mother was tragically taken by cancer.  Showing remarkable courage and determination for a young man, Dr. Conde was motivated by this personal tragedy to help cancer patients like his mother.  He ultimately obtained a Ph.D. in cancer research from the University of Texas.            

But as accomplished as he already was, Dr. Conde was not satisfied with just studying cancer.  He wanted to treat the people suffering with and battling the disease.  Only after he enrolled in DACA was Dr. Conde able to attend medical school.  And he is currently doing just that, studying oncology at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine.  Dr. Conde hopes to spend his life in the United States treating cancer patients and helping to find a cure for the disease.  I would hope we can all agree that America is a better place with Dr. Conde in it.

There are hundreds of thousands of Dreamers just like Dr. Conde, all of whom have the potential to contribute to our communities and to our country.  To deny them these opportunities because they were brought here as children would be as senseless as it is cruel.                                                              

We are better than that.  And this week we have an opportunity to prove it.  I am proud of those in the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in good-faith negotiations over proposals to protect our Dreamers and improve our border security.  I sincerely believe that we can find a path to 60 votes – if only the Republican leadership will let us.

The Majority Leader’s decision yesterday to seek to open up the debate with a vote on a poison pill amendment about so-called sanctuary cities – which has nothing to do with either Dreamers or border security – was a less than helpful start.  Such transparent attempts to score political points stand in stark contrast to the bipartisan search, behind the scenes, for a solution, led by members of both parties.  I hope now all Senators will focus on bipartisan solutions, and not on divisive distractions.                                 

I respect this institution as much as anyone.  For 43 years I have seen and, I hope, contributed to, the good that it can accomplish.  I have often said that, at its best, the Senate can serve as the conscience of the Nation.  But it can only do so when we put aside our own self-interest, and we work across the aisle and in the spirit of compromise.  I know we are capable of meeting this challenge today, because we have done it before. 

Five years ago, 68 Senators – Democrats and Republicans – voted for an immigration bill that provided protections for Dreamers, including an expedited pathway to citizenship.  It is time for the Senate to do so again now, and for the House to follow suit.  President Trump claims he will treat Dreamers with “great heart.”  If that is true, he will certainly sign our bipartisan compromise that emerges.  Let’s get to work.  The future of Dreamers – and the fate of the American Dream itself – lies in our hands. 

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