June 18, 2012
By Tom Wong
Last week, the Obama administration announced that approximately 800,000 undocumented youth will be eligible for relief from deportation and be given two-year work permits through an executive order. To be eligible, they must have been brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, be younger than 30, living in the U.S. continuously for five years, either in school or graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a GED, or served in the military, and have no serious criminal history.
It is undeniable that this development will have a positive and profound affect on the lives of not only the young people who are eligible under the executive order, but also their parents, relatives and friends who will no longer have to fear the removal of their loved ones. At the same time, this shift in deportation policy leaves many important issues unaddressed.
The executive order carries many of the hallmarks of the proposed DREAM Act, a bipartisan federal immigration bill that was first introduced in 2001 that would give undocumented youth a path to citizenship. However, it falls short of the DREAM Act in several respects.
Most importantly, as the Department of Homeland Security memo describing the executive order notes, “This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship.”
Moreover, the language of “deferred action” and the program of renewable work permits sidesteps one of the most important aspects of the DREAM Act: the certainty and security that comes with permanent legal status.
As a matter of politics, the executive order will undoubtedly factor heavily into President Obama’s re-election campaign. Its timing will also likely take the wind out of the sails of Republican attempts to push a revised version of the DREAM Act through Congress – efforts that have thus far gained little traction among conservative Republicans.
However, a deeper subtext also exists. Immigrant advocacy groups have not been shy in criticizing the administration over the record numbers of deportations that have occurred under Obama’s watch.
And earlier this month, the administration was sued by the American Immigration Council for what it described as unlawfully withholding records related to another form of removal known as voluntary return.
Pushing the administration further were the undocumented students themselves. Earlier this month, two students staged a sit-in at Obama’s campaign office in Denver. Sit-ins, described by DREAMERS as “UndOccupy Obama,” also took place at Obama re-election offices in Ohio, Michigan and California. These actions are part of a larger strategy that has emerged over the past couple of years of undocumented youth “coming out of the shadows” to contest their illegality, risking their own deportation and creating a meaningful social movement.
However, for many the executive order is bittersweet.
As the DREAM Act has languished in Congress for over a decade, many have “aged out” of its provisions and are now too old to be eligible under the executive order. For these people, their dreams are deferred as their status remains unresolved. Even those who are eligible under the executive order are expressing caution.
This is where politics comes back in. “Deferred action” carries with it a two-year window. If Obama wins re-election, Friday’s announcement will allow his administration to use its prosecutorial discretion to act in the area of immigration even in the context of a highly divided and partisan Congress. But if Obama loses, a Romney administration could reverse the policy of deferred action by denying the renewal of work permits when they expire. The fear, as some immigrant legal advocacy groups have already suggested, is that undocumented youth will come out of the shadows now only to expose themselves to deportation later.
The political winds, however, suggest that this may not be the case. Earlier last week, a coalition of evangelical Christian groups, including Focus on the Family, released its “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform.” This statement described current immigration laws as having created a “moral crisis” at a “tragic human cost.” It seems unlikely that a Republican administration would risk doing damage to its evangelical support by deporting undocumented youth.
What this means is that if Obama is not re-elected, his administration will have given the Republican Party a gift when it comes to using deportation policy to court the Latino vote.
As the political drama unfolds in the background, undocumented youth and their allies are celebrating across the country. For many, though, this celebration is but a short respite in what remains a long and difficult road ahead.
To be sure, the mantra of “Undocumented and Unafraid” has left an indelible mark on the landscape of American immigration policy. But for the DREAMers who are not eligible under the executive order, and even for those who will receive deferred action, a second mantra remains incomplete: “We are Americans.” The movement has already made its mark, but much more work remains.
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