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Nevada congressman Ruben Kihuen’s immigrant roots, quest for ‘American Dream’ push him to seek DACA reform

Nevada’s fourth U.S. House District Rep. Ruben Kihuen likes to say he is the first “Dreamer” elected to Congress, going from a youthful immigrant to citizen.

Kihuen, whose district includes Pahrump, Beatty and Tonopah, came to the United States with his family when he was eight, he said on Nevada Newsmakers this month.

“I didn’t choose to come here,” Kihuen said. “My parents picked up their stuff and said, ‘We want to go to America so we can get a piece of the land of opportunity and achieve the American dream’.”

His family came legally, on a visa. But they overstayed the visa and fell into the undocumented category.

But thanks to the 1986 Immigration Reform Act — signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan — Kihuen and his family were allowed to stay.

His parents now own a home. His sister is a lawyer. He is a member of Congress.

That’s the American Dream.

Kihuen, D-North Las Vegas, became a “Dreamer,” long before the phrase was ever coined.

“My family is in the United States today, as citizens, thanks to the 1986 immigration reform that a Republican president championed, Ronald Reagan,” Kihuen said.

“At one point, I was here undocumented,” added. “But thanks to this country that has so much compassion and thanks to this country that gave me the opportunity to go for the American dream, I’m now serving in Congress.”

Seeking opportunity

Kihuen’s personal American dream now pushes him to stand up for the DACA recipients, young immigrants brought to this nation by their parents — like Kihuen — and who are allowed to remain in the U.S. legally by meeting a list of “good citizen” requirements.

Kihuen wants them to have the same opportunity he had but worries about the fate of his younger immigrant brothers and sisters.

The U.S. Justice Department announced it will end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in six months, making its enrollees open to deportation. President Trump has given Congress six months to fix the problem. He said in a tweet that he may revisit the issue if Congress fails to act.

“If I’ve become so engaged in this particular issue, it is because I see these young Americans suffering and going through fear, fear of deportation, They are hiding in the shadows. It reminds me of a young Ruben Kihuen when I was in their shoes.

“These (DACA) youths are in the same position I was a few years ago,” Kihuen said.

Perhaps their position is more tenuous. Despite living law-abiding and economically-productive lives, they face possible deportation from the only nation they ever really knew.

“There are 800,000 young Americans who feel uncertain about their future,” Kihuen said of the DACA enrollees. “A lot of them are living with anxiety, and now with depression. They want to know they are accepted in this country. It is the only country they know.”

The numbers, moving forward

Kihuen takes the 800,000 number from the number of young immigrants who registered for the DACA program under the Obama administration. About 13,000 live in Nevada.

To qualify, young immigrants had to be in school, or have graduated from school or have a GED. Those who have an honorable discharge from the armed forces are also eligible. Those with a felony conviction, major misdemeanor or three misdemeanors of any kind are not eligible.

“These are 800,000 young Americans who have only known America,” Kihuen said. “They don’t even know their foreign (own) country. And now, these young Americans are going to school, they are working in the casino industry in Nevada. They are teaching in the Clark County School District. They are teaching in the Washoe County School District. They are working in all sectors of our economy. And now we are telling them that they don’t have an opportunity at the American dream?

“I believe that is un-American and goes against all of the values we represent here in the United States,” he added.

Speaker Ryan

Kihuen sees positive signs in the U.S. House. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has spoken compassionately about the DACA recipients.

“I believe there is enough Republican and Democratic support (to pass DACA legislation),” Kihuen said. “Speaker Ryan, he has expressed interest in coming up with a solution. But the bottom line here is we are tired of hearing rhetoric.

“Now, we want to see action,” he said. “And right now, we actually have a few bills on the table. We have the Dream Act, we have the American Hope Act, which I have co-sponsored, and we have a couple of others that will bring us a permanent solution for these youth.”

The Dream Act, endorsed by U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, and Senate Democratic leadership, would give DACA recipients a path of legal status. The American Hope Act, first introduced by U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Illinois, provides a five-year path to citizenship.

“I believe there is enough interest from both Republicans and Democrats and I can speak on behalf of the (U.S. House) Democratic caucus and every single Democratic member is ready to sign on to the Dream Act today. But we are in the minority. We need a few Republicans to sign on with us.”

“So if some of them are really compassionate and they really want to do something about this, then there is a bill. It’s called the Dream Act and I encourage my colleagues in the Nevada delegation, including (GOP Rep.) Mark Amodei and (GOP Sen.) Dean Heller to sign on and champion it.”

If Congress doesn’t act, Kihuen sees few possibilities for the DACA recipients to stay in the U.S.

“You have a lot of people saying, well, why don’t they do it the legal way?” Kihuen said. “And I’m sure every single immigrant who wants to come here and work hard, play by the rules and stay out of trouble, would go the legal way if there was a legal way that actually worked. But right now, you have to wait about 25 years, if you actually want to wait for the legal way.”

Ray Hagar is a journalist for “Nevada Newsmakers.” More information on the public affairs broadcast program, podcast and website is available nevadanewsmakers.com

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