Sen. Kamala Harris on Wednesday announced a plan to expand the use of deferred action immigration programs as president and use executive actions to remove the threat of deportation of millions of undocumented people in the United States.
The plan, which the California Democrat is rolling out ahead of a trip to Nevada on Friday, would work within the current confines of immigration law and assumes Congress would be unable to pass immigration reform, something the body has failed to do for years. Her plan, should she be elected in 2020, would instead expand the use of deferred action immigration programs and use executive actions.
Harris would look to remove barriers that prevent many so-called Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children – from receiving legal status by applying for a green card. The plan would also expand the use of deferred action programs to cover parents of US citizens and legal permanent residents, veterans and undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for years.
The plan would also make it easier for deferred action recipients to adjust their immigration status by clarifying that a number of infractions usually committed by Dreamers – like entering the country unlawfully, having lapses in their immigration status and performing unauthorized work – do not impact immigration proceedings as long as those recipients have a family connection in the United States or a job that requires them to adjust their status.
“Every day in the life of a Dreamer who fears deportation is a long day,” Harris said in a statement. “Dreamers cannot afford to sit around and wait for Congress to get its act together. Their lives are on the line.”
She added: “As president, while I fight for Congress to pass 21st Century immigration reform, I won’t wait. I’ll take action to lift barriers Dreamers face to pursuing legal status and put them on a meaningful path to citizenship. These young people are just as American as I am, and they deserve a president who will fight for them from day one.”
This is not the first time Harris has proposed going around Congress and using executive action to tackle a core Democratic issue. Harris announced in April that she would use the power of the presidency to enact sweeping gun control measures if Congress fails to send comprehensive legislation to her desk in her first 100 days.
The politics of Harris’ immigration plan are clear. The senator, by tackling immigration, is taking on an issue that animated President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign; Trump also rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2017. Harris’ plan mentions the President early in her proposal, arguing that Trump “can’t change” the fact that Dreamers “pledge allegiance to our flag… serve in our military and thrive in our universities.”
“Despite his best efforts, he can’t shake the resolve of our Dreamers and the hope they have in the America we’ll build when he’s gone,” Harris’ plan states. “It’s an America where families are kept together, not torn apart. It’s an America where children are cared for, not kept in cages. It’s an America where Dreamers are finally recognized for what they are: Americans.
To do that, Harris’ plan will issue four specific executive actions to make applying for a green card easier for Dreamers who have work in the United States or family in the country.
Harris’ first executive action would adjust the statute that someone seeking to adjust their immigration status must have been “lawfully admitted or paroled” in the United States. Harris would create what she is calling a “Dreamers Parole-in-Place Program,” thereby removing that barrier.
Her second executive action would be to clarify that coming to the United States illegally as a child means they were unable to obtain lawful status “through no fault of their own,” thereby qualifying deferred action recipients for an exception to the rule that those seeking to alter their status must have “maintained continuously a lawful status since entry.”
The third action would direct Harris’ Secretary of Homeland Security to retroactively grant work authorization to Dreamers. Many deferred action recipients run into issues altering their status because they “accepted unauthorized employment.”
Harris’ fourth action would write a new rule that states separation from a close family member is “extreme hardship.” Current law states that a deferred action recipient needs to leave the country for up to 10 years to apply for legal status. But the Department of Homeland Security secretary can waive that rule in cases of “extreme hardship.”
Taken together, the Harris campaign estimates that more than 2 million Dreamers could gain a pathway to citizenship by expanding the deferred action programs and removing barriers to getting a green card.
David Leopold, a longtime immigration lawyer and the chair of Immigration Law Group at Ulmer & Berne LLP, consulted with Harris team about the plan.
“She has kind of broken new ground here,” Leopold told CNN. “What we are talking about here is really creative and, I believe, legally founded use of executive authority to find solutions, particularly for Dreamers and even find, within the law, a pathway of citizenship.”
Leopold said the only reason many deferred action recipients can’t receive a pathway to citizenship “is because of certain technicalities and interpretation.” But Harris, Leopold added, “plowed through this statute, read it carefully, and found ways to find solutions though executive action” and without congressional movement.
This issue could be headed to the Supreme Court, too.
The Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it would meet behind closed doors Thursday to discuss whether to take up a case for next term concerning the phase out of the DACA program. If they decide to take up the case, that means a decision could would be rendered during the heart of the 2020 presidential campaign.
CNN’s Kyung Lah and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.