Georgetown University President John DeGioia honored Illinois Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) with the Timothy S. Healy, S.J. Award on February 28. Named after the 46th president of Georgetown University, the award is conferred on an alumnus or alumna who has rendered outstanding and exemplary community, public, or professional service in support of humanitarian causes and advancements for the benefit of humankind.
Durbin was introduced by Cristina Velasquez, a Georgetown graduate and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipient. She praised the senator for being one of the first to bring light to an issue that is rarely spoken of and emphasized the difficulties of living with her legal status in limbo.
Durbin is an alumnus of both the School of Foreign Service and the Georgetown University Law Center, and he started his career in Congress as a representative in 1982. He is the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on defense and serves as minority whip. He is best known for advocating for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act). The act protects minors who entered or were brought to the country illegally and gives them a path to permanent residency if they submit to stringent background checks and attend college for four years or serve in the military for at least two years.
Although that particular piece of legislation never passed, the Obama administration in 2012 began DACA program, which mirrored many of the provisions of the DREAM Act. Since 2017, however, the status of DACA recipients, often called Dreamers, has been uncertain. In September 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era program and set a deadline of March 6 for Congress to come up with a permanent fix. Despite prolonged debate, no bill was ultimately passed in January, and Congress continues to debate the polarizing issue.
During his keynote speech, Durbin reflected on how the DREAM Act came to be. The son of an immigrant himself, he recalled handling cases where talented children of immigrants faced the threat of deportation. “It wasn’t their fault,” he said, “Young people should be given a chance.”
In one particular case, he recalled a talented young pianist who had been accepted to the Juilliard School but was an undocumented immigrant, and the law required her to leave the country for ten years before petitioning for return.
“That’s not fair,” Durbin remembered thinking, “she’s done everything right—and struggled doing it.” So, Durbin decided to introduce the DREAM Act to give young undocumented citizens who grew up in America the chance to become citizens.
Regarding the recent difficulties in securing a permanent fix for Dreamers, Durbin remarked that President Donald Trump, during an immigration roundtable, promised to sign the bipartisan bill that he had crafted. And yet, Trump later rejected all six bipartisan plans. Durbin expressed his disappointment in the broken promise but said he continues to believe that any deal requires support from the president.
When asked what advice he had for students interested in public service, Durbin acknowledged the difficult political climate today but remarked that the ability to do something right is worth all the bad parts of politics. He concluded by encouraging the audience to serve a greater cause. “We need you more than ever: your energy, your idealism. The values you’re picking up at Georgetown can make a difference.”