Obama’s Immigration Reprieve: ‘The Right Thing To Do,’ But Not Good Enough

A protest in favor of the DREAM Act

A protest in favor of the DREAM Act. (Photo: Jobs with Justice/flickr)

President Obama finally acted on behalf of undocumented youth because “it is the right thing to do,” he said Friday. He announced temporary reprieve for DREAMers, as they are also known, during a press briefing at the White House Rose Garden.

“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” Mr. Obama said. “They’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country—to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents—or because of the inaction of politicians.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano acted on the president’s mandate and issued a memorandum explaining how prosecutorial discretion will be used. Individuals under 30 years of age can benefit if they are able to prove that they were brought into the country when they were younger than 16; have lived here for at least five years; are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a GED certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the U.S. Coast Guard or Armed Forces; and have no criminal record or pose no threat to national security or public safety. Importantly, eligible youth will be able to apply for work permits.

This major immigration policy could affect up to 1.4 million children and young adults, based on the Pew Hispanic Center estimates. This number, almost twice the Department of Homeland Security’s own estimate of 800,000 beneficiaries, includes 700,000 immigrants between the ages 18 to 30 who are currently enrolled in school or have graduated from high school and an additional 700,000 who are under the age of 18 and are enrolled in school.

The president made it clear that “this is not amnesty, this is not immunity.  This is not a path to citizenship.  It’s not a permanent fix.  This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”

Precisely because this is a temporary measure with a path to nowhere, it leaves DREAMers with many questions and keeps them uncertain about their future. This is an order which could instantly be revoked by a President Romney after all. For all these reasons, undocumented youth and their advocates are cautiously celebrating the directive.

“The devil is in the details, and we don’t have a lot of details right now,” Daniel Rodriguez, a 26 year old DREAMer, told the New York Daily News. “We’re trying to get them. The president needs to execute his promise and implement this action immediately. We cannot wait until after the election.”

Mee Moua, president and executive director of Asian American Justice Center applauded President Obama’s action but said it wasn’t enough. “While this is forward movement on our immigration policies, we can’t stop here. We call on Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and all undocumented immigrants,” Moua said.

I have no doubt that the President believes granting a reprieve to these young Americans is the right thing to do. And it is. He was also spurred by relentless pressure from the DREAMers themselves and their advocates, including very vocal ones in the Democratic Party. Moreover, this was a brilliant political move that took back the DREAM Act discourse from Marco Rubio and the GOP, locked in the Latino vote, and cornered Mitt Romney who has yet to say whether he would rescind this reprieve or not if he wins the presidency.

The President did good, but not enough. Comprehensive immigration reform has to be achieved. If does get re-elected, he and his party better deliver.

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Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.