Drawing on 14 years of experience with immigration law, Elizabeth Badger examined the treatment of young undocumented immigrants in America in her lecture, “How to Protect the Dreamers,” on Monday night.

Badger’s lecture was a part of the Joshua A. Guberman Lecture series and was sponsored by the Legal Studies program. Badger is currently a senior attorney at the Boston office of Kids in Need of Defense, a national legal services organization that represents unaccompanied minors facing deportation. She explained that she specializes in “working with immigrant youth, especially high-risk young men.”

In her talk, Badger highlighted what she sees as a fundamental problem with our immigration court system: No detained immigrants, not even  minors, have access to free legal counsel. This breaks with the precedent set by the other court systems within which children may end up. Legal situations as disparate as juvenile delinquency and family court matters share the practice of providing minors with free counsel, Badger explained. “Anything that deals with the welfare of youth, counsel is usually appointed. Not in immigration matters,” she said.

Badger dedicated most of her lecture to examining the way immigration law treats minors who immigrated illegally to the United States at a young age. Although her talk addressed the of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era policy implemented through executive order, she began by defining the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the often-proposed but never-passed piece of legislation which inspired DACA.

The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Connecticut, according to the bill’s text on Congress.gov.  If passed, the act would allow qualifying immigrants to apply for conditional and then permanent residency, also known as a green card. The “Dreamers,” as those who would qualify are called, must be undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as minors and are pursuing an education. This would not be an “open door policy,” Badger said; the act specifies strict requirements for qualification.

Following Congress’ repeated failure to pass the DREAM Act, the Obama administration enacted DACA by executive order, Badger explained. DACA provides “temporary, renewable relief to the same pool of young immigrants contemplated by the DREAM Act,” but unlike the DREAM Act, offers no pathway toward permanent residency. With DACA status, recipients can obtain renewable work permits, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses; in some states, recipients qualify for in-state college tuition.

According to Badger, DACA requires applicants to have immigrated to the U.S. prior to age 13; be at least 15 at the time of the application; have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; meet requirements for education; have clean criminal records and to pay a $495 fee. Recipients must reapply every two years.

“I don’t think it’s very hard to make a case that the benefits to the U.S. in general outweigh the concerns,” Badger stated.

Badger argued that DACA protects America by ensuring that immigrants pay taxes and allowing them to report crimes  without fear of deportation, as well as to drive and work legally. She highlighted the last point, adding, “Authorized workers protect U.S. citizens, because then in the labor pool, there is not a preference for undocumented workers who might be willing to accept lower wages.”

Badger refuted the idea that these laws reward lawbreaking, arguing that DACA recipients were too young when they entered to be seen as capable of committing a crime. 

Additionally, she noted that one must have entered the country before mid-June 2007 to qualify for DACA, disproving the argument that the law incentivizes illegal immigration today.

Badger reflected on her experience immediately after DACA passed in 2012, describing how she visited schools and saw “emboldened” children applying for DACA. “Kids were not timid at all about applying. … They were coming out of the shadows,” she elaborated.

Talking to these DACA applicants, Badger realized that they were often eligible for other pathways to permanent residency, but had lacked the resources to discover them.

However, this environment of openness changed after Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. “A lot of advocates were telling people, ‘Do not apply if you haven’t already applied. Don’t put yourself on the radar,’” Badger said.

DACA was rescinded by the Trump administration on Sept. 5, 2017, which meant that no new applications could be filed after Oct. 5 and that recipients would not be able to reapply.

Two lawsuits were filed against this rescission, one brought by a group of students from the University of California system and another filed in Maryland, according to Badger. The result of both cases enjoined, or undid, the rescission, which means that renewals can now go forward, but no new applications may be filed.

“Sadly, the downside of the injunctions is that it has taken pressure off Congress to do anything about it,” Badger said. She argues that legislation is “better for DACA than executive orders in order to avoid lawsuits and litigation.”

However, Badger cautions against attempting to solve the problem all at once with a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Instead, this legislation will have to be done “piecemeal” in today’s political climate, as our Congress may only be able to agree on smaller immigration issues at a time.

The most important road toward a solution, according to Badger, is “changing public opinion,” which she argued will require breaking out of one’s “bubble” and reaching out to those who hold opposing beliefs.

She also discussed the importance of supporting scholarships that do not require American citizenship or residency in order to expand access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. 

Finally, she highlighted the need for “systemic funding of legal services organizations” for undocumented populations, so that immigrants can find out if they are eligible for pathways to permanent residency.

Badger closed her speech by saying, “If we’re sincere about having diverse voices in our community and … providing equal access to opportunities, I think DACA is something we really have to solve.”