Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Anniversary Of Executive Action On Immigration

A year ago today, in a nationwide address, President Obama announced a series of measures to improve our broken immigration system.  He outlined efforts to focus scarce resources on identifying and deporting those people who pose a danger to our communities, to modernize our legal immigration system, and to provide temporary relief from the threat of deportation for hardworking, law-abiding members of our communities.  For many, the President’s announcement offered, at last, a hope for stability.  It acknowledged the longstanding presence and contributions of immigrants to our country.

But the President's announcement also underscored the real human consequences of the House of Representatives failing to allow a vote to reform our immigration laws.  Importantly, it highlighted the impracticality of deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.  Many of them have strong family ties in the United States and a deep desire to become fully integrated in our country.  They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.  To suggest that we can simply remove them is unrealistic and it would conflict with fundamental American values.

The President’s executive action is no substitute for legislation.  He reminded critics of that very fact during his address, pointing out that the commonsense, responsible solution to the problems in our immigration system is to pass a comprehensive reform bill.  A year later, the Republican-led Senate has failed to debate, let alone pass meaningful immigration reform.  Instead, it has repeatedly taken up divisive and partisan proposals that do not reflect a desire to fix what we all agree is a broken system. 

These political gimmicks are not serious attempts to address an issue as important as immigration and could not be more different from what the Democratic-led Senate accomplished in 2013 when we passed a bipartisan immigration bill supported by 68 Senators.  During the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, I convened multiple hearings and we heard from 42 witnesses.  Government officials and individuals representing a range of perspectives – including law enforcement, civil rights, labor, faith, business, and state and local governments – testified about the challenges confronting our current immigration system. 

We heard the powerful testimony of witnesses such as Jose Antonio Vargas and Gaby Pacheco, who pressed the urgent need for immigration reform.  The compelling stories of DREAMers, young immigrants brought to this country as children, who have grown up as Americans and have every desire to make meaningful contributions to their communities, continue to inspire.  Many of them have qualified for the temporary relief provided by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has established a path for them to become our next generation of teachers, engineers, public servants, and doctors.  Our Senate-passed, comprehensive bill included the DREAM Act, an important measure that would have provided a long-lasting solution to the problems these courageous young individuals face, acknowledging that they deserve to be part of our nation’s future. 

The Senate-passed bill would have addressed many of the injustices in our current immigration system.  It was a remarkable example of all that we can accomplish when we actually focus on the hard job of legislating.  But the Republican-led House of Representatives blocked that effort.  It stubbornly refused to even allow a vote on that bill.  Given that lack of action, I understand the President’s frustration and motivation.  His executive action was a response to what we all acknowledge is a broken system, but it is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. 

Following the President’s announcement, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the executive action program and heard the testimony of Astrid Silva.  Hers is a fundamentally American story.  It is similar in many ways to those of our parents and grandparents.  It is a story of a family looking to find a better life.  Astrid qualifies for the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  And her parents would be eligible for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program because her younger brother is a U.S. citizen.  For more than 20 years, Astrid’s family has been working hard and contributing to their local community.  They are the kind of family we want to have as our neighbors and coworkers.  Their stories remind us that their dreams, along with those of so many others affected by our dysfunctional immigration system, hang in the balance, and underscore the need for a permanent legislative solution.

Some in Congress claim that the President’s executive action undermined the prospect of achieving comprehensive immigration reform.  But I remind them that the President’s action – prompted by Congressional inaction – is not an excuse for continued Congressional inaction.  We must keep working to find a permanent legislative solution that provides today’s immigrants with an opportunity to prosper and contribute to our country.  As families across the nation gather next week around the table to give thanks, we will all count our family members and their security among our greatest blessings.  Our fight for comprehensive immigration reform is at its core a fight to help reunite families and provide the security that we all want for our loved ones.  I urge Republicans to return to the cooperative and bipartisan approach of 2013 and work on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  The American people support immigration reform.  It is the right thing to do, and it should not be delayed any longer. 

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