Kamala Harris says she would protect young immigrants through executive orders

California Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled executive actions she would do as president to make it easier for young immigrants to get legal status

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Kamala Harris said Wednesday she would create a path to citizenship for “Dreamers” — those who were brought to the country illegally as children — as well as protect 4 million other immigrants from deportation.

The Democratic presidential candidate released a plan that detailed executive actions she would pursue, if elected, to shore up Dreamers’ legal status, which has been in limbo under President Trump’s administration.

“Every day in the life of a Dreamer who fears deportation is a long day,” Harris said. “Dreamers cannot afford to sit around and wait for Congress to get its act together. Their lives are on the line.”

Harris said that while she would push for a broader immigration overhaul through Congress, she also would take steps immediately to lift obstacles preventing Dreamers from getting legal status.

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The California senator has taken pains to include proposed executive actions in her policy rollouts, including immediate steps she could take on gun control and ensuring federal contractors pay men and women equally. The focus on administrative moves is an acknowledgement that sweeping legislative initiatives face an uphill slog in the current gridlocked Congress.

That is especially so in immigration, where comprehensive reform has been elusive for decades.

“Everybody on all sides of this debate agrees the ideal solution would be legislation passed by Congress. The reality is that’s just not happening,” said Stephen H. Legomsky, who worked as chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Obama. “What Sen. Harris is proposing is, essentially, until that happens, let’s improve the situation as much as we legally can through executive action.”

Harris would clarify Dreamers’ status as lawful immigrants, aiming to remove technical barriers that make it impossible for some to get a green card who could otherwise do so through an immediate family member or sponsorship by an employer.

She would create a “parole-in-place” program to give Dreamers the right to live in the United States. Similar programs exist for U.S. military service members’ relatives who lack legal status.

She would also issue a rule stating that Dreamers are “not at fault” for their lapse in legal status, and would direct the Department of Homeland Security to retroactively grant them permission to work so they are not penalized for having accepted unauthorized employment.

For those who left the country to apply for a green card at a U.S. Consulate abroad — and would typically be subject to a three- or 10-year ban from reentering the country — Harris would offer relief by defining separation from a close family member as “extreme hardship.” Those immigrants would then be exempt from that prohibition against returning to the United States.

The campaign estimates these executive actions would place 2 million Dreamers on a path to citizenship, if they otherwise fulfill the requirements to apply for legal residency.

“This does give us a window into her thinking on Dreamers,” said Legomsky, now a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “She clearly thinks of them as people who are American in every way except on paper.”

Harris would also reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protected Dreamers from deportation that the Trump administration has tried to rescind, and would expand the eligibility requirements for it.

She also would enact a new program blocking the deportation of parents of citizens or legal permanent residents and other immigrants with community ties, such as military service or extended residence in the country. The initiative could apply to about 4 million immigrants, her campaign estimates.

A narrower program by Obama, aimed at parents of citizens or legal residents, was blocked by a federal district judge in Texas.

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Also, in an interview released Wednesday, Harris opened the door to her administration pursuing criminal obstruction of justice charges against Trump.

Harris told NPR News that the Department of Justice “would have no choice” but to pursue such charges, pointing to the 10 instances of possible obstruction detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Harris said there needed to be accountability in the criminal justice system, even for presidents.

“I’ve seen prosecution of cases on much less evidence,” she said.

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