The Obama administration today announced a significant policy shift long sought by many Latino families and activists, saying “it was the right thing to do.” Effective immediately, the Administration will no longer deport undocumented immigrants under 30 who are in good standing, and in fact will allow them to apply for work permits. Up to 1.4 million children and young adults could potentially benefit, according to Pew Hispanic Center.
“We have always been a nation of immigrants, as well as a nation of laws,” said President Obama. “These are young people who study in our schools, and play with our kids…They are American in every single way but one – on paper,” he said.
News of the policy change was announced earlier, and it sent a ripple through the Latino and immigrant community across the country.
“I am speechless,” says Erika Andiola, an undocumented Arizona State University graduate who has gained national prominence as a “Dreamer” advocate.
“We have been here since we were children, and we grew up believing we are American,” says Andiola. “Now we don’t have to be afraid to walk around the corner,” she adds.
The directive applies to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were sixteen but who are currently under the age of thirty. If they have lived here continuously for over 5 years and pose no security risk, they will be allowed to remain in the U.S. without risk of deportation.
They do have to prove the following criteria. They must either be in school, have graduated from high school or have obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces. The directive also bars someone with a felony offense or multiple misdemeanor offenses from applying.
“Those who demonstrate that they meet these criteria will be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and will be eligible to apply for work authorization,” says the DHS statement. Obama stressed, however, this is not a path to citizenship, which would require a change in the federal law.
Immigrant and civil rights organizations, as well as many Latino leaders, responded very positively to the news.
“We knew you could, Mr. President,” stated Angelica Salas, Executive Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. ”If what we heard today is exactly what happens, it was about time,” she said.
“For these young men and women who want to become doctors, teachers, police officers and soldiers, this announcement will change their lives forever,” said New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menéndez.
“It really is a great day,” says Rudy López, of the Center for Community Change. “This speaks to the deep urgency of the issue; I see this being done for humanitarian reasons, and President Obama responded to it.”
It is an election year, however. Republicans questioned the timing as well as the way the policy was enacted.
Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, says while he supports working toward immigration reform, “I’m a little skeptical of today’s announcement.” Díaz-Balart adds, “We are six months away from an election, and all of a suddden a President who has increased deportations and has not delivered on his famous “promesa” to achieve serious immigration reform remembers the Latino community exists.”
Senator Marco Rubio, who has proposed a similar legislative pathway for “Dreamers,” said in a statement that “by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long term one.”
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney issued a statement saying he agreed with Senator Rubio, saying President Obama’s executive order is “just a short-term matter – it can be reversed by subsequent presidents.” Governor Romney has said previously he would veto the Dream Act, but today he said as president he would do his best “to have that kind of long-term solution which provides certainty and clarity for those who come into this country through no fault of their own.”
One Republican congressman, Iowa’s Steve King, went in a different direction, saying he planned to sue President Obama to suspend his executive order.
Democrats, however, fired back, and defended this as a good first step.
“The rhetoric of division and marginalizing of people by Mitt Romney and the Republican party needs to end. We are past the point of obstruction,” said Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva.
Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Chairman of the Immigration Taskforce for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said today’s directive is just a first step. He also cautioned the processing of these cases might take a while to put in place. He did however, say it was an important first step.
“This sets the ball in motion to break the gridlock and fix our laws,” said Gutierrez.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, of the National Council of La Raza, said today on MSNBC this puts immigration legislation “right in the doorstep of Congress.”
Adding this is an issue overwhelmingly supported by Latinos and across the American electorate; she said “it is a no brainer.”
Politics and policy aside, some leaders acknowledged the increasingly vocal “Dreamers” themselves, who continuously pushed for the chance to stay in the country they call home.
“The DREAM students built a movement for social justice that has shown that change is possible, and we are proud to be a part of that movement,” said Ana Avendaño, Director of Immigration and Community Action for the AFL-CIO. “It’s what America is all about.”