The GOP is demonizing the dreamers

When you read this, President Trump will have given his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. I can say without fear of contradiction that the speech, to paraphrase the Gettysburg Address, will be little noted nor long remembered. I would bet you’ve already forgotten it.

But I will remember the evening because of my guest. (Note: Each member of Congress is allowed to invite one person to sit in the House gallery and watch the address.) I’ve invited Leo Salinas Chacon, a junior at UofL who is studying economics, Spanish and French. He is also president of the Hispanic Latin American Student Organization.

Leo came to the United States from El Salvador when he was 3 years old. His father and grandfather ran successful businesses in his birth country and, because of their success, they were targeted by gangs, actually being kidnapped and held for ransom.

They were denied refugee status by the United States because they weren’t being threatened by the El Salvador government, so they came here on a tourist visa and stayed, first in Nashville and then in Louisville.

Obviously Leo had no role in those decisions. He is a perfect example of the type of immigrant contemplated by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, the source of so much controversy in Congress these days. He is a fellow in UofL’s Martin Luther King Scholars program, and he wants to work in the financial sector upon graduation. I doubt he will have any problem getting a job; in fact, he probably will be aggressively recruited. He is the type of person we ought to be begging to stay in our country.

I have met a number of these “Dreamers.” Every one I have met has been impressive. There are about 6,000 Dreamers in Kentucky, the majority of them in Louisville. Some of them are students like Leo, others are gainfully employed, and some are in the U.S. military. They are all in jeopardy of being deported unless Congress acts, because President Trump has ordered DACA to end on March 5.

That is why Congressional Democrats have been fighting so hard to give these great people permanent legal status in the United States. But, it is not why the federal government was shut down for a weekend recently and could be shut down again soon.

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The federal government shut down on Jan. 19 because Congressional Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, could not come together and figure out a spending plan for Fiscal Year 2018, which is already four months old.

Because of inept Congressional leadership, we have been funding the government literally for weeks at a time. Last year, the government was funded on a temporary basis for seven months before we finally adopted a five-month budget. The Defense Department understandably has protested that this failure to provide reliable, long-term funding is jeopardizing national security. They are not alone; virtually every federal agency justifiably complains when they don’t know what their budgets will be.

Determining the budget of the government is Congress’s most fundamental obligation. When the Constitution says we should “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” etc., it basically is directing Congress to provide appropriate resources for those activities. We have essentially failed to do that for the last 18 months.

Congressional Republicans have deflected blame for their incompetence by demonizing the Dreamers, contending that Senate Democrats prevented them from getting the 60 votes needed in that body to pass funding bills, because Democrats were trying to help “illegal immigrants.” They neglect to admit that only 45 Republicans voted to keep the government open. But more important, Democrats were fighting for funding for community health centers, disaster relief, the battle against opioid addiction, veterans’ health care and other critical functions that have so far been ignored. We will continue those fights.

We will also continue to fight for Leo and the other 700,000 or so great young people who are contributing and will continue to contribute, so much to the only country they have ever known. •

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

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