Whether it was progressive policymaking or a shrewd political move, President Barack Obama’s announcement to stop deportations for some undocumented immigrants in June was hailed as victory by immigrant rights activists. Since the 2001 introduction of the federal “DREAM Act” bill, which would grant higher education and a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, many of these youth have organized one of the strongest online and offline movements in American history. They staged sit-ins in June at Obama campaign offices around the country, putting additional pressure on the Administration and later resulted in Obama’s deferred action announcement.
But despite this historic milestone in immigration policy, many undocumented immigrants and their lawyers have now expressed skepticism at whether they should even apply for the government’s protection from deportation.
This month, the Department of Homeland Security will release additional details on how to apply for the deferred action program. What we know so far is that applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis for those who meet specific criteria, such as completing education or military service, meeting a certain number of years of U.S. residency, reaching a certain age, and having a clean criminal record. Those who are granted deferred action get a guarantee that they will not be deported for two years, with an option to extend that period.
Regardless of this promise, many
eligible undocumented youth still remain in danger of eventual deportation. For
instance, Daniela Pelaez, a high school valedictorian from Florida, found out that she
may still be deported as she
prepares for her freshman year at Dartmouth College this fall, with immigration authorities promising only
to hold off for two years before initiating deportation proceedings again.
The feeling that deferred action is only temporary has caused frustration among immigrant rights advocates and undocumented immigrant communities, who continue to be on alert.
Compounding this is the uncertainty of the level of protection the government is prepared to provide if people do come out of the shadows as undocumented or out-of-status, which refers to those who came legally but then overstayed their permit.
“I think there are many uncertainties within the immigration communities because it is a major election year,” said Keish Kim, a co-founder of the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance. “There are still many questions that are left unanswered at this point. With that said, I do want to recognize that it is a positive first step; and I plan to make a final decision on whether to apply or not, once more details on application process are released in August.”
Deferred action serves as only a temporary solution to our nation’s problem of undocumented immigration. Immigrant youth hesitate to apply for fear that if Obama is not re-elected, they may fall to the whims of Mitt Romney, who has vowed to veto the DREAM Act should it ever reach his desk as president.
Uy, a partner at the Law Office of Lien L. Uy who handles immigration cases,
said that under a different administration, deferred action could be moot.
“As it [deferred action] is a policy change, a new administration could simply reverse the policy,” Uy said. “Further, there is no guarantee as to what will happen to the families of eligible students, as the guidance does not contemplate what the government will do with the information gathered from the eligible students in their applications. As such, many students and youth are afraid to apply at this point.”
“There is some nervousness about applying,” said Chris Punongbayan, deputy director of the Asian Law Caucus (ALC). “A lot of concerns stem around confidentiality protections if their applications are denied.”
ALC will host legal consultation clinics for those interested in applying for deferred action. Likewise, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center recently released a FAQ in English and several Asian languages, and will offer more once the actual application process and guidelines become publicly available around August 15.
Ultimately, deferred action, like the DREAM Act, are only partial solutions to our country's broken immigration system. While some DREAM Act advocates have fought for a stand-alone DREAM Act bill for years, others believe that these temporary “band aids” are not enough to provide a solution to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
Administrative and legislative solutions for the remaining undocumented population, which includes parents of undocumented youth and those who do not qualify for deferred action or a possible DREAM Act, continue to be unaddressed.
The biggest barrier to a comprehensive solution still lies among conservatives, who believe that giving work permits to undocumented immigrants is a form of amnesty that will eventually lead to legalization of their “illegal” status.
Immigrant rights advocates, on the other hand, want deferred action to lead to more concrete solutions.
“Pressure needs to be placed on Obama, Romney and all political leaders to see the benefits of immigrants and why it’s nonsensical to try to deport undocumented immigrants,” said University of San Francisco Professor Bill Ong Hing. “We need comprehensive immigration reform from Congress, especially since the Supreme Court in the Arizona SB 1070 case made clear that states cannot pass their own immigration laws.”
The battles over federal immigration policy still continue to yield a patchwork of immigration laws. Without a comprehensive solution, distrust of the government will remain high in undocumented immigrant communities.
Erin Oshiro, senior staff attorney at the Asian American Justice Center, discussed the urgent need for a federal legislative solution.
“This would include successful passage of the DREAM Act and other common sense fixes for our immigration system, such as reducing the backlogs in the family system and creating a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Oshiro said. “The Administration and the courts have limited powers and ultimately, Congress is the only body that has the power -- and ultimately the responsibility -- to meaningfully improve our immigration system.”
Learn more about the
DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform:
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