President Obama today issued a sweeping new directive to the Department of Homeland Security stopping in its tracks the possible deportation of as many as one million young immigrants.
The youth affected are those who would be eligible for U.S. residency if the Dream Act, stalled now for years by congressional Republicans, were to become law
The president does not have the power, however, as would the Dream Act, to provide the youth with a path to full citizenship.
Immigrant rights activists and their allies applauded and celbrated the president's move today, emphasizing the need, meanwhile, for further reform by Congress.
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano wrote in a memo ordering the rules change. "They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Indeed, many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways."
Specifically, DHS will no longer seek to deport people who are under the age of 30, who came here when they were 15 or younger, have continually resided in the U.S. for five years, have not been convicted of a felony and who are either in school or who have successfully graduated with a high school diploma or GED.
These undocumented immigrants will be allowed to apply every two years for continued residency. However, they will not be allowed a path to citizenship, because such a change in policy would require legislative action.
"Without a doubt this is a bold step taken by this administration," said Angela Maria Kelley of the Center for American Progress, speaking during a telephone press conference. "It's an example of strong leadership and strong action in a town of followers."
Kelley warned, however, that the action could be undone "with the stroke of a pen" by any new president. "There is no doubt that this administration has turned the page and is willing to write the next chapter," Kelley continued, "but Obama can only write so much." She said that to make the changes permanent, Congress must change the law. "Congress has to stop hiding under its desk and start acting like lawmakers."
Still, she and others on the call were enthusiastic, arguing that a new era in immigration reform had opened up. As a result of the president's action, more undocumented youth and adults would feel empowered to come forward and demand a path to legal residency and citizenship.
"Today's announcement shows that we're on the right side of history," said Roy Naim, an undocumented immigrant from Israel.
José Antonio Vargas, the well known journalist who gained acclaim when he came out as undocumented a year ago, said on the call that Obama's move was "bold" and "must be commended."
Yesterday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in a letter to Obamaurging the move, "Such relief would provide a talented group of young people who stand to contribute greatly to our nation's economy with a small measure of security that they will be able to remain in the place they call home."
On the call and across the country there was an emotional tinge. Gaby Pacheco, of United We Dream, spoke of growing up without papers. "We've been freed of the pain that we've been suffering" and the fear of being "apprehended and deported from this country."
Though the change only affects young people, she said, their relatives and friends would also benefit, at least emotionally. It would be a boost for the people who have "seen us grown up, witnessed everything from our first kiss, to us having graduated from high school."
Many have argued that, given the nation's demographic crisis, in which there are not enough young workers to replace the retiring generation, immigrants offer a lifeline to the economy. The only reason for anti-immigrant legislation, they say, is overt or covert racism.
Vargas, responding to a question from the People's World, underlined the point. In his travels around the U.S., he said, he has found that many opponents of immigration reform use "the Mexicans" and "the illegals" interchangeably. He argued that it was up to activists and journalists to explain both that immigration is not an issue for any particular group, as well as the benefits of immigration into the United States.
On the bright side, polls show that the vast majority of people in the United States support passage of the DREAM Act.
Those on the call and President Obama himself further emphasized the need for the DREAM Act and further reform.
The DREAM Act, Obama said, "says that if your parents brought you here as a child, you've been here for five years and you're willing to go to college or serve in our military, you can one day earn your citizenship. And I've said time and time and time again to Congress that - send me the Dream Act, put it on my desk, and I will sign it right away."
In 2010, Democrats were nearly successful in sending the act to Obama's desk, but were blocked by the Senate Republicans.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that he would veto the DREAM Act if it came across his desk.
Photo: (AP/Jason Redmond)