Politics & Government

Should ‘Dreamers’ with DUIs get the same break as a member of Congress?

Democrats say immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, commonly called “Dreamers,” and were caught driving drunk long ago should be shown the same consideration as members of Congress with a similar record.

The House will consider sweeping legislation next month to create a path to permanent residency for the “Dreamers,” and part of the bill details how and when a driving under the influence (DUI) conviction would disqualify them from that process.

“It’s true that a single DUI conviction is a serious matter, but we can look to Congress,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, who chairs the House immigration and citizenship subcommittee.

“There are members of Congress who have been convicted of DUIs and they serve with us. And they are not removed from the country,” she said.

Republicans say Democrats who wrote the bill and control the House don’t go far enough in dealing with drunk drivers. Democrats counter that it would be hypocritical to hold “Dreamers” to standards different from those used on congressional colleagues.

The GOP proposal triggered a lengthy and heated debate when the House Judiciary Committee was writing the bill this week, and could spark a fight again when the full House considers the bill. The committee rejected the Republican effort in a party line vote.

Two current members of Congress have DUI histories. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, pleaded no contest to a DUI charge in 2005 while visiting South Dakota, where he grew up. He was convicted and paid a $350 fine, according to the Houston Chronicle, and his right to drive in South Dakota was suspended for 30 days. Brady said at the time, “I deeply apologize.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, pleaded guilty to DUI in Virginia in 2013. He paid a $250 fine, had his driver’s license suspended, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, which was suspended. He made a lengthy apology.

Among Democrats, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island pleaded guilty in 2006 to DUI after crashing his car into a barricade near the Capitol. He was fined $350 and sentenced to a year’s probation.

Kennedy retired from Congress in 2011, and has been active in programs advocating better treatment for people with mental health and drug addiction problems.

Crapo today is the Senate Banking Committee chairman, and Brady is the top Republican on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Former President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program seven years ago, allowing children who arrived in the United States before age 16, and whose parents were undocumented immigrants, to apply for deferred status and remain in the United States. That status does not provide any special path to citizenship.

Current policy says that for a DACA-eligible immigrant to gain the deferred status needed to stay in this country, he or she cannot have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or three or more other misdemeanors. Nor can they pose a threat to national security or public safety.

The Democratic-authored bill that the House will consider would make it a law that “Dreamers” can be deported if they have a felony DUI offense, three or more misdemeanor offenses or the secretary of Homeland Security deems them a threat to safety and security because of their DUI record.

More than that, Republicans are most concerned that the Democratic plan says an undocumented immigrant could have two DUI misdemeanors not count against them if they have no such convictions in the 10 years prior to applying for legal status. The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would grant that waiver.

The DHS secretary could also provisionally deny someone legal status if they have only one DUI and are deemed a public safety threat.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, suggested the proposed law regarding Dreamers with DUIs did not go far enough, part of his broader effort to crack down on anyone convicted of DUIs. Chabot’s view is that that DUIs should be considered more serious than other misdemeanors, and so his amendment bars anyone convicted of two or more DUIs, or one DUI in which someone was seriously hurt or killed, from receiving permanent resident status.

“We should not be passing laws which shield drunk drivers from removal or reward them for their dangerous conduct by fast tracking them to get a green card,” he said. A green card allows a person to live and work permanently in this country.

Democrats countered that Chabot’s plan would still mean punishing someone for a conviction from long ago.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said, “people make mistakes and laws and policy decisions should reflect that.”

They pose “no more or no less a public safety threat than a member of Congress who has a DUI conviction from several years ago,” he said.

“This legislation is intended to recognize reality, that these people are Americans, that they are Americans in every sense except for a piece of paper, and to say, to imply, there’s one standard for members of Congress with a DUI conviction and another … where a single DUI can automatically expel them from the country is wrong,” Nadler said.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colorado, tried one final committee pitch for the tougher approach: “If this is covered in the bill, be redundant and make sure it’s covered,” he said.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.