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Since last September, however, when President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security rescinded DACA protection, all this has become uncertain for DREAMERS.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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The Vulnerable Young People Denied Access to What We Call the American Dream

As he promised during the campaign, President Donald Trump is cracking down on immigration—pledging to deport anyone who is caught without papers and creating chaos and injustice with an outrageous executive order late last week that suspends entry for all refugees for 120 days, entirely bans refugees from Syria and for 90 days bars immigrants from seven Muslim countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

But so far, at least, Trump has done nothing about DACA.  DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was established by President Barack Obama’s executive order to protect adolescents and young adults—brought here by their parents when they were small children—from deportation and to allow these young adults to obtain work permits.  The protection established by President Obama under DACA is for two years and is renewable.

These young people call themselves Dreamers, named for a bill introduced in Congress in 2001 by Senator Dick Durbin, a bill that has never been passed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Bill—the DREAM Act.  President Obama established DACA because Congress had never acted on the broader bill that would have expanded access to higher education by guaranteeing in-state tuition and access to federal financial aid and to scholarships at state colleges and universities.

In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Dale Russakoff published an extraordinary profile of one Dreamer, a young woman named Indira, who left Mexico with her parents when she was six years old.  Her parents, both medical doctors in Mexico but working in menial jobs in the U.S. ever since, brought their family to the United States on an immigrant visa and never returned to a Mexican city where relatives had been killed by violence.  Indira is now enrolled in college, thanks to a privately funded foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers.

Let me explain here that I have really never been able to follow the thinking of those who have opposed the DREAM Act. I guess they believe that educational opportunity and the American Dream are a zero sum game?  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?  That children are responsible for the so called sins of their fathers?  How could any caring adult possibly want children to have to grow up living in the shadows, and if the children and their families manage to get along, how could anyone want the children to be denied the right to in-state college tuition or the right to qualify for a Pell Grant or college loan?  Opposing the Dream Act has always seemed to me a particularly punitive and cruel definition of fairness.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, undocumented immigrant children do have a right to a K-12 education, despite their problems accessing colleges and universities. Russakoff explains that in their 1982 decision in the case of Plyler v. Doe, the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right for undocumented immigrant children to a K-12 public education.  Russakoff quotes the majority decision written by Justice William Brennan: “Already disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability and undeniable racial prejudices, these children, without an education, will become permanently locked into the lowest socioeconomic class.”  In a concurring opinion, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The classification at issue deprives a group of children of the opportunity for education afforded all other children simply because they have been assigned a legal status due to a violation of law by their parents.”

Russakoff profiles Indira, whose family resides in the state of Georgia: “She 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… At a college fair attended by representatives of numerous Georgia colleges, she asked admissions officers what kind of help was available for undocumented students. No one had any to offer her. She switched her focus to private colleges and was admitted to Atlanta’s Agnes Scott, which she says awarded her $20,000 annually in financial aid, less than half of what she needed.”

Her help came from TheDream.US, a private foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers at Delaware State University. Russakoff follows Indira to college and profiles as well several of her classmate Dreamers who managed to discover this program, several of them learning about the help it could offer only after a number of years of manual work after high school graduation.  Russakoff estimates there are 2.1 million Dreamers, “who have grown up as Americans in almost every way except for their passports.”  Educated in public schools, these children are likely not able to remember much about life in their nations of origin. They may not even speak any language other than English.

President Trump’s threat to eliminate DACA during the campaign has terrified Dreamers all over the country.  For the students in Delaware, there was some reassurance: “A lifeline of sorts arrived the week after the election, when the students received letters from TheDream.US, Governor (Jack) Markel and the president of D.S.U., pledging to stand behind their scholarships no matter what became of DACA.”  Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US, “lined up attorneys to represent them if anyone challenged their right to be in school.”

So far, President Donald Trump has taken no action to eliminate DACA.  Please read Russakoff’s profile of Indira and her Delaware State University Dreamer classmates to become more informed about the extraordinary challenges faced by the young people who are labeled “illegal” despite their exemplary academic records and their efforts to pursue what we call, perhaps erroneously, the American Dream.