Government Confusion and Dysfunction Increases Insecurity for Children, Families, and Schools

Life is filled with unknowns and eventualities we cannot control, but it used to be that we could expect the core functions and protections of government to be more or less predictable.  For twenty years now, parents whose jobs did not provide health insurance but who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid have been secure, knowing they could cover their children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal program administered by the states.

And in 2012 President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect the young people who were brought here as babies or toddlers by their undocumented immigrant parents. DACA ensured these young people could at least qualify for a driver’s license, secure a work permit, and know they would not be deported as they matured into young adulthood.

We seem to live in a time of diminished expectations. Ten or fifteen years ago, the DREAM Act was additionally aimed at protecting the DREAMERS’ right to higher education—to qualify for in-state college tuition and be able to apply for a Pell Grant or a federally protected college loan. While those aims became politically unreachable, at least President Obama was able to ensure through DACA that the estimated 800,000 DREAMERS have been protected from deportation and granted the right to earn a living in the society where they have grown up and been educated in K-12 public schools.

Since last September, however, when President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security rescinded DACA protection, all this has become uncertain for DREAMERS. Days later President Trump himself tweeted his support for DACA, and announced: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do).”  Today, despite much talk, the future of DACA remains in question. We watched Trump’s televised negotiation with Congress on Tuesday only to wonder what the President’s confusingly contradictory statements might mean, whether a hopelessly split Congress can possibly compromise, and how the policy confusion is affecting DREAMERS who are simply trying to live normal lives.  Education Week estimates that about 20,000 DREAMERS are employed today as school teachers.

Then, later on Tuesday night, we learned that a federal judge in San Francisco has blocked the Trump administration’s six-month phase out of DACA that began last September.  Here is Derek Hawkins of the Washington Post: “U.S. District Judge William Alsup… blocked the administration’s attempt to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.  Alsup was tasked with, among other things, determining whether it would serve the public interest to leave DACA in place while litigation over the decision to scrap the program proceeds. On this point, he had an easy answer: Trump himself had expressed support for DACA on Twitter in September, just days after Department of Homeland Security officials rescinded it. ‘Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!'”

The words Hawkins quotes from in Judge Alsup’s order seem to summarize where we are as a country—the new level of uncertainty with which DREAMERS are living—and a new level of dysfunction in the federal government:  “We seem to be in the unusual position wherein the ultimate authority over the agency, the Chief Executive, publicly favors the very program the agency has ended… For the reasons DACA was instituted and for the reasons tweeted by President Trump, this order finds that the public interest will be served by DACA’s continuation.”

Fortunately for DREAMERS, the Constitution provides checks and balances—in this case the judiciary. Hawkins continues his analysis: “In litigation over Trump’s executive actions, no ruling seems to be complete without a section explaining how Trump’s tweets and public statements undercut the administration’s legal arguments… This is new territory for federal judges, according to Niels Frenzen, an immigration law professor at the University of Southern California. ‘We’ve never had a president tweeting like this… You have these extreme public statements that are shedding light on the motivation of the president in regard to why he is directing Cabinet secretaries to engage in these actions. The courts are saying these are fair game.'”

So… DREAMERS can take a deep breath, at least while a legal challenge to the phaseout of DACA moves forward.

Does this mean that Congress will stop negotiating on a way to address the needs of the DREAMERS—that DACA will no longer be a bargaining chip in the contentious battle over the continuing budget resolution that must be passed in the next two weeks to keep the government running?  Does this mean Congress will forget about the 800,000 DREAMERS because Senators and Representatives have so much other chaos to deal with?  Probably. Nobody knows.

And now for low income families and children there is another unknown—this time due to Congress’s own dysfunction and inability to compromise. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—which Congress had allowed to lapse at the end of September—seems to be out of money even though everybody had been told it had been fixed for the moment. In December, when Congress passed an emergency continuing budget resolution, it added a relatively small infusion of cash to protect CHIP—until March when Congress would again try to find a way to keep CHIP alive. Last Friday, Kaiser Health News published this warning: “Some states are facing a mid-January loss of funding for their Children’s Health Insurance Program… despite spending approved by Congress in late December that was expected to keep the program running for three months, federal health officials said Friday. The $2.85 billion was supposed to fund state’s CHIP programs through March 31.  But some states will start running out of money after Jan. 19, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS did not say which states are likely to be affected first. The latest estimates for when federal funding runs out could cause states to soon freeze enrollment and alert parents that the program could soon shut down.  The CHIP program provides health coverage to 9 million children from lower-income households that make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.”

The NY Times editorial board spoke to this issue on Tuesday: “CHIP was created in 1997 and has helped halve the percentage of children who are uninsured. It has been reauthorized by bipartisan majorities of Congress in the past. But Republican leaders in Congress all but abandoned the program last fall and devoted their time to trying to pass an unpopular tax bill that will increase the federal debt by $1.8 trillion over the next decade… By contrast, CHIP costs the federal government roughly $14.5 billion a year, or $145 billion over 10 years. Republicans have held children’s insurance hostage to force Democrats to accept cuts in other programs.”

What has become the norm in Washington—in the Trump administration and in Congress—is dysfunction and rancorous fighting  that makes life more uncertain for America’s most vulnerable families, young people, and children. This kind of uncertainty is a public school problem as well, as 50 million of America’s children—many of them living in poverty and financial insecurity—bring the anxiety they absorb at home with them to school each day.

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Trump’s Cancellation of DACA Is Short-Sighted and Morally Reprehensible

President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he has cancelled DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which has protected young people brought to this country as children, children who, before DACA, had been forced to live in the shadows without any protection against deportation.  The majority of these young people arrived as preschoolers, have grown up in the United States, know no other country, and speak English as their primary language.

I first learned about the need for a DREAM Act ten years ago from a guidance counselor who had been trying to assist the valedictorian at her high school with college admissions.  This counselor had learned that her state barred undocumented adolescents from qualifying for in-state tuition at its state universities and made such students ineligible for college scholarships.

Dale Russakoff profiled the issue again last January in the NY Times Magazine.  Explaining that even President Barack Obama’s DACA program—instituted by executive order in 2012—failed to address the educational obstacles facing undocumented adolescents across many states, Russakoff profiles a student in Georgia, who, “was determined to go to college and medical school and fulfill her parents’ interrupted dream. In her junior year (of high school), Indira began researching college options… She was distressed to discover that Georgia barred undocumented immigrants from attending its top public universities and charged them out-of-state tuition at all others—triple the rate for citizen residents. She then turned to researching financial aid and learned that Congress barred her from accessing federal Pell Grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study jobs—the most common forms of assistance for low-income students.”  After a long struggle, this young woman finally located a path to college in another state and qualified for some financial assistance from a private foundation.

The DREAM Act, (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would have assisted the 800,000 children, adolescents and young adults who were brought to this country as children by their parents, has never passed Congress.  While the DREAM Act was intended to guarantee access to higher education, President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA, provided at least minimal protection: the promise that registered participants would not be deported, the right to hold a job, and the possibility eventually of citizenship.

Earning DACA protection was not easy. In a statement released from Randi Weingarten on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers lists the requirements established by President Obama’s executive order for young people to qualify for DACA: have entered the United States before an adolescent’s 16th birthday; pass a stringent background check; meet educational or training criteria; and pay a $495 application fee.  AFT explains: “DACA status is not permanent; it is not a green card or a pathway to citizenship. It’s a temporary protective status renewable every two years. The average current age of DACA recipients is 26; the average age they came to the United States is 4 years old.”

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday that DACA will be phased out beginning March 5, 2018, he is quoted by the NY Times , which explains, “he was driven by a concern for ‘the millions of Americans victimized by this unfair system.’  Mr. Sessions said the program had ‘denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.'”

Economists, however, have been quick to counter Sessions’ argument that DREAMERS are stealing scarce jobs in the U.S. economy.  Here is Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman: “Trump’s decision to kill DACA… is, first and foremost, a moral obscenity: throwing out 800,000 young people who are Americans in every way that matters, who have done nothing wrong, basically for racial reasons.  But it’s also worth noting that Jeff Sessions just tried to sell it with junk economics, claiming that the DREAMERS are taking American jobs.  No, they aren’t…. DACA is very much a boon to the rest of the U.S. population, and killing it will make everyone worse off.”  DREAMERS’ “educational and behavioral profile… doesn’t resemble the average immigrant, let alone the average undocumented immigrant; they look like H-1B visa holders, that is, skilled immigrants we have specifically allowed in because they help the economy.  Beyond that, DREAMERS are young—which means that they help the economy… because they mitigate the economic problems caused by an aging population…. (A)s the population ages, there are fewer working-age members contributing taxes to pay for Social Security and Medicare. A cohort of relatively high-wage, highly motivated people mostly in their 20s, likely to pay lots of taxes for decades, is exactly what the doctor ordered to make that issue less severe… So this… will make everyone worse off.  There is no upside whatever to this cruelty, unless you just want to have fewer people with brown skin and Hispanic surnames around. Which is, of course,what this is really all about.”

Opposition to passage of a DREAM Act represents narrow, fearful and selfish thinking. The idea that life in the United States is a cut-throat competition among our children—that if your kid gets a good education, she might edge mine out of entrance to a particular college or out of a job later in life—represents an extreme form of the ideology of individualism. Educational opportunity and the American Dream are not a zero sum game. People who oppose the DREAM Act also are likely to blame children for the so-called sins of their fathers. The leaders of our nation’s religious communities released a joint statement on Tuesday castigating Trump’s cancellation of DACA on the most basic moral grounds.

Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have introduced a bipartisan DREAM Act 2017.  Please contact your U.S. Senators and your Congressional representative and ask them to support this bill, which would reinstate basic protection for DREAMERS from deportation.  The American Federation of Teachers invites you to use AFT’s action alert.

In a New Yorker satire, Eight Hundred Thousand People with Dreams to Be Deported by One with Delusions, Andy Borowitz captures the irony of the President’s stated reason for canceling DACA: “‘The people I am deporting are parasites who have exploited our economy,’ the man, who has declared bankruptcy six times, said.”