Looking back: HIRC, the DREAM Act & DACA

This past Saturday, June 15, marked the one year anniversary of President Obama’s historic announcement regarding the future of undocumented immigrant youths.

Inspired by the global TED talks, in 2010 Harvard Law School started “HLS Thinks Big,” where professors share ideas and research with the community in short, accessible presentations. In May 2011 six Harvard Law Professors, including Clinical Professor and HIRC Director Deborah Anker, discussed their ideas and shared innovative work. Moderated by Dean Martha Minow, the talks represented a wide range of research interests.

Professor Anker’s presentation focused on creative lawyering to help undocumented immigrant students acquire status. This population, which would have fallen under previously proposed versions of the “DREAM” Act in Congress, sought the Clinic’s help while awaiting the passage of legislation that would create a path to citizenship.

In her May 2011 talk, Professor Anker challenged the increasingly pervasive assumption that nothing can be done for these young adults short of passing the DREAM Act legislation that was pending at the time. Professor Anker pointed to a number of remedies in immigration and asylum law that might currently be available to some students. For example, age is often significant in immigration law, and students who have come to the United States as unaccompanied minors may be eligible for special immigrant juveniles status (SIJS). There are also other forms of relief for which DREAMers can possibly apply. For example, U.S. law includes a provision called a U-visa for victims of crimes who have or could in the future help and cooperate with law enforcement, social service agencies such as the Department of Children and Families, or even the Department of Labor.

Comprehensive immigration reform is currently being debated in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate bill S. 744 provides a path to citizenship for many o f the 11 million undocumented persons in the United States, contingent on whether they meet certain criteria.

Since the new policy of “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (“DACA”) launched in August of 2012, more than 530,000 students applied for DACA and over 365,000 have already been approved. While DACA is not a status, it does allow student to acquire work permits and prevents their removal from the U.S. for a 2-year renewable period. Students awaiting DACA are in some states also eligible for drivers licenses and in-state tuition, among other rights and benefits.

The Clinic gained prominence in this work after representing a young Harvard College student in 2010 who was placed into removal proceedings and became a ‘poster child’ for the DREAMers and subsequent legislation. Other undocumented undergrads subsequently sought out HIRC’s assistance and advice and the Clinic was contacted by high school teachers, lawyers, and advocacy groups across the country. The Clinic also works closely with the Harvard College student group, Act on a Dream, as well as with the state-wide immigrant youth-led organization, the Student Immigration Movement (SIM), to address individual students’ needs. These groups and others have been instrumental in the push for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

Over the last three years, HIRC has represented qualified undocumented youths petitioning for asylum, U visas and VAWA status; some of these cases have already resulted in grants of permanent status and even legal permanent resident status for the applicants. Since August 2012, the Clinic at GBLS, in collaboration with community-based groups, has also offered numerous evening and weekend workshops to educate youths about their eligibility for DACA and what is required for the application. The Clinic continues to take part in ongoing conversations about how to develop further remedies and lobby for permanent status for these amazing undocumented young immigrants around the country as the nation moves forward in considering comprehensive immigration reform.

For more information and analysis of pending immigration legislation in Congress check back for our forthcoming blog posts! Our thanks especially to Senator Durbin and all the other Congressmen, Senators, attorneys, academics and advocates that have supported the DREAMers over the years.