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The Great Moral Issue of Our Time

Remarks delivered on the Senate floor Feb. 14, 2018.

"We got 80 percent of the American people who are saying, do not turn your backs on these young people who have lived in this country for virtually their entire lives." (Photo: Harrie Van Veen/Flickr/cc)

"We got 80 percent of the American people who are saying, do not turn your backs on these young people who have lived in this country for virtually their entire lives." (Photo: Harrie Van Veen/Flickr/cc)

Let me begin by congratulating Chloe Kim, a first-generation American, who won a gold medal for the United States in the women’s halfpipe snowboarding event this week.

Her father, Jong Jin Kim, emigrated from South Korea to the United States in 1982, became a dishwasher at a fast food restaurant. He studied engineering at El Camino College after working at low-skill jobs and then became an engineer. He left his engineering job to support his daughter’s snowboarding ambitions, so that he could drive her 5 and a half hours to the mountain for training.

Congratulations to Chloe and her entire family. You make the United States proud.

The whole debate that we are now undertaking over immigration and the Dreamers has become somewhat personal for me, because it has reminded me in a very strong way that I and my brother are first-generation Americans. We are the sons of an immigrant who came to this country at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, young man who was a high school dropout who did not know one word English and had no particular trade.

A few years ago my brother and I and our family went to the small town that he came from and it just stunned me the kind of courage that he showed and millions of other people showed leaving their homeland to come to a very different world — without money, in many cases, without knowledge of the language.

Immigration is not just my story. It is the story of tens of millions of American families who came from every single part of this world.

My father immigrated to this country because the town he lived in in Poland was incredibly poor, there was no economic opportunity for him, people there struggled to put food on the table for their families. Hunger was a real issue in that area. My father came to this country to avoid the violence and bloodshed of World War I which had come close to his part of the world in a ferocious manner. He came to this country to escape the religious bigotry that existed then because he was Jewish.

My father lived in this country until his death in 1962. He never made a lot of money. He was a paint salesman.

My father was not a political person but it turned out that, without talking much about it, he was the proudest American that you ever saw. And he was so proud of this country because he was deeply grateful that the United States had welcomed him in and allowed him opportunities that would have been absolutely unthinkable from where he came.

But the truth is that immigration is not just my story. It’s not just the story of one young man coming from Poland who managed to see two of his kids go to college and one of his sons becoming a United States Senator. It’s just my family’s story. It is the story of my wife’s family who came from Ireland. And it is the story of tens of millions of American families who came from every single part of this world.

In September of 2017, President Trump precipitated the current crisis we are dealing with by revoking President Obama’s DACA executive order. If President Trump believed that that executive order was unconstitutional and needed legislation, he could have come to Congress for a legislative solution without holding 800,000 young people hostage by revoking their DACA status. But President Trump chose not to do that. He chose to provoke the crisis that we are experiencing today. And that is a crisis we have to deal with, and here in the Senate we have to deal with it now.

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And let us be very clear about the nature of this crisis. Some people say, “Well, it’s really not imminent, it’s not something we have to worry about now.” Those people are wrong. As a result of Trump’s decision, 122 people every day are now losing their legal status, and within a couple of years hundreds of thousands of these young people will have lost their legal protection and be subject to deportation.

The situation we are in right now as a result of Trump’s action means that if we do not immediately protect the legal status of some 800,000 Dreamers — young people brought into this country at the age of 1, or 3, or 6, young people who have known no home other than the United States — let us be clear that if we do not act and act soon these hundreds of thousands of young people could be subject to deportation.

And that means they could be arrested outside of the home where they have lived for virtually their entire life and suddenly be placed in a jail.

122 Dreamers lose their legal stats every day

They could be pulled out of a classroom where they are teaching, and there are some 20,000 DACA recipients who are now teaching in schools all over this country. And if we do not act and act now, there could be agents going into those schools and pulling those teachers right out and arresting them and subjecting them to deportation.

Insane as it may sound, I suppose that the 900 DACA recipients who now serve in the United States military today could find themselves in the position of being arrested and deported from the country that they are putting their lives on the line to defend. And some people say, “Well, that’s farfetched.” Well, I’m not so sure. It could happen. How insane is that? But that’s where we are today and that’s what could happen if we do not do the right thing and this week pass legislation here in the Senate to protect the Dreamers.

We have a moral responsibility to stand up for the Dreamers and their families, and to prevent what will be an indelible moral stain on our country if we fail to act. I do not want to see what the history books will be saying about this Congress if we allow 800,000 young people to be subjected to deportation, to live in incredible fear and anxiety.

But here is the very, very good news regarding the Dreamers. And it’s actually news that I, a couple of years ago, would not have believed to be possible. And that is that the overwhelming majority of the American people — Democrats, Republicans, Independents — absolutely agree that we must provide legal protection for the Dreamers, and that we should provide them with a path towards citizenship. That is not Bernie Sanders talking. That is what the American people are saying in poll after poll after poll.

Just recently, a Jan. 20 CBS News poll found that nearly 9 in 10 Americans, 87 percent, favor allowing young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the United States. Eighty-seven percent. In Iowa, in Vermont, and in every state in this country, strong support for legal status for the Dreamers and a path toward citizenship.

On Jan. 11 a Quinnipiac poll found that 86 percent of American voters, including 76 percent of Republicans, say they want Dreamers to remain in the country.

On Feb. 5, in a Monmouth poll, when asked about Dreamers’ status, nearly 3 out of 4 Americans support allowing these young people to automatically become U.S. citizens as long as they don’t have a criminal record.

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In other words the votes that are going to be cast hopefully be cast today, maybe tomorrow, are not profiles in courage! They are not members of the Senate coming up and saying, “Against all of the odds, I believe that I’m going to vote for what is right!” This is what the overwhelming majority of the American people want. And maybe, just maybe, it might be appropriate to do what the American people want, rather than what a handful of xenophobic extremists want. Maybe we should listen to the American people. Democrats, Republicans and Independents who understand that it would be a morally atrocious thing to allow these young people to be deported.

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans favor allowing young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the United States

I think from a political perspective, about 80, 85, 90 percent of the American people support anything in a nation which is as divided as we are today — you can’t get 80 percent of the American people to agree on what their favorite ice cream is but we got 80 percent of the American people who are saying, do not turn your backs on these young people who have lived in this country for virtually their entire lives.

We have got to act and act soon here in the Senate and there is good legislation that would allow us to do that. And in the House the good news is that there is bipartisan sponsored by Congressman Hurd and Congressman Aguilar, which will provide protection for Dreamers and a path toward citizenship.

My understanding that that bipartisan legislation now has majority support, and I urge in the strongest terms possible, that Speaker Ryan to allow democracy to prevail in the House. Allow the vote to take place if you have a majority of members in the House in a bipartisan way who support legislation, allow that legislation come to the floor. Let the members vote their will and if that occurs I think the Dreamers legislation will prevail.

Speaker Ryan: Let us go forward. Let us pass the Dreamers bill. Let us deal with border security

We all understand that there is a need for serious debate and legislation regarding comprehensive immigration reform. This is a difficult issue. An issue where there are differences of opinion, a whole lot of aspects to it. How do we provide a path toward citizenship for the 11 million people in this country who are currently undocumented but who are working hard, or raising their kids, who are obeying the law.

What should the overall immigration policy of our country be — how many people should be allowed into this country every year, where they come from — all of this is very, very important, and needs to be seriously debated. But that debate and that legislation is not going to be taking place in a two-day period. It’s going to need some serious time, some hearings, some committee work, before the Congress is prepared to vote on comprehensive immigration reform. It will not and cannot happen today or tomorrow or this week.

Our focus now as a result of Trump’s decision in September must be on protecting the Dreamers and their families, and on the issue of border security.

There will be important legislation coming to the floor of the Senate today or maybe tomorrow. And I would hope that we could do the right thing, do the moral thing and do something that history will look back on as very positive legislation. Let us go forward. Let us pass the Dreamers bill. Let us deal with border security. And then in the near future let us deal with comprehensive immigration reform.

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Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont's at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Read more at his website. Follow him on Twitter: @SenSanders or @BernieSanders

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