This week, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants 15-31 years old are expected to apply for legal status in the United States via the program that Barack Obama announced a couple of months ago. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, eligible undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30 can apply for a two-year deferral from deportation actions by the federal government. While this may sound like a wonderful break for children who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, the obvious question is whether they can trust the government not to use their application information against them in future deportation actions.
Issues Of Trust
Back in June, when the program was first announced, I remember saying that it was a move in the right direction–of course with the full understanding that President Obama’s announcement was purely political in an election year. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the government is trying to pull a “Jedi mind trick” on undocumented immigrants.
The first thing to consider is intent. Why would the Obama Administration, which has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants since he took office in 2008, suddenly decide to bestow a temporary amnesty of sorts upon this particular category of undocumented immigrants?
I think there are two reasons: 1) The immediate political advantage of pandering to Latino voters by appearing to do something in the best interest of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own. 2) To make it easier to find people
when if they do decide to change the policy, and begin deporting all undocumented immigrants. The first reason is obvious, so I won’t spend time discussing it in detail, but the second reason falls in line with the Obama Administration’s apparent ideology on immigration.
After all, what better idea than to have people pay $465 to present themselves to be added to the long list of people living illegally in the country? Furthermore, where there are children and young people who are documented, surely there are other family members who lack documentation. If you believe the government’s motives are sincere, then the opportunity to avoid deportation–temporarily at least–is viewed as a gesture or an attempt to gain good standing as a step toward correcting the issue.
While I was living in Mexico, I met many people who fell into the category of young, undocumented immigrants. One particular young man was about 23, and he had been deported from the United States, where he had lived since about two years old. His story was heartbreaking, because the deportation split him from the only family he’d ever known, as well as his two children. He was desperate to reunite with them. He explained how it was a complete culture shock to be shipped off to a country that he had no memory of. He said it was like being a person without a country–without a home. He was living with relatives, whom he’d not met before his deportation. He said that he felt like he didn’t fit in anywhere, because his accent told everyone in Mexico that he was an outsider. Thus, he was treated as such. Even now, his story touches me–families shouldn’t be ripped apart like that. I hope he made it back to his family in the United States somehow.
People like this young man shouldn’t be deported, nor should they have to pay a fee to be added to a list that might leave them open for deportation at a later date. I do not trust the motives of the government’s deferred action program. It seems to me like an easy way for them to round up even more people for deportation over the long term. I’m certainly not saying that there won’t be people who are allowed to remain in the U.S., but I think over the long term, it will be people who the government views as useful for their agenda–not the average undocumented immigrant.
Are People Who Are Granted Deferred Action Legal Residents Or Not?
In addition to the issue of motives, I was perplexed at how exactly Obama could grant the legal ability to work to people who would not be considered legal U.S. residents, even under the deferred action program.
On June 15, 2012, in a Rose Garden speech, President Barack Obama said the following regarding the new immigration policy:
“As I said in my speech on the economy yesterday, it makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — 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. [...]
Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.
Now, let’s be clear — 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. It is–the right thing to do.”
In a memo, also dated June 15, 2012, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano stated the following:
“No individual should receive deferred action under this memorandum unless they first pass a background check and requests for relief pursuant to this memorandum are to be decided on a case by case basis. DHS cannot provide any assurance that relief will be granted in all cases. [...]
For individuals who are granted deferred action by either ICE or USCIS, USCIS shall accept applications to determine whether these individuals qualify for work authorization during this period of deferred action.
This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights. It remains for the executive branch, however, to set forth policy for the exercise of discretion within the framework of the existing law. I have done so here.”
Source: Department of Homeland Security
Based on the language in both Obama’s speech and Secretary Napolitano’s memo, it seems clear that there is no change in the immigration status of those who receive deferred status. So, if this is the case, how can a person who is not a legal resident of the United States be legally qualified to work in the country? Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t be able to work–I personally think they should be allowed to work and gain citizenship–but I’m asking how this can be accomplished legally, given the current laws.
Racist Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has already contested the “spirit” of Obama’s policy, by issuing an executive order to deny state IDs, drivers licenses, and other state services. Her argument is that since Obama’s deferred action program does not confer lawful status to undocumented immigrants, they are not eligible to receive these services/privileges bestowed upon citizens and legal residents of the state. The order specifically states:
1. The issuance of Deferred Action or Deferred Action USCIS employment authorization documents to unlawfully present aliens does not confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefit.
2. State agencies that provide public benefits, as defined in 8 United States Code § 1621 shall conduct a full statutory, rule-making and policy analysis and, to the extent not prohibited by state or federal law, initiate operation, policy, rule and statutory changes necessary to prevent Deferred Action recipients from obtaining eligibility, beyond those available to any person regardless of lawful status, for any taxpayer-funded public benefits and state identification, including a driver’s license, so that the intent of Arizona voters and lawmakers who enacted laws expressly restricting access to taxpayer funded benefits and state identification are enforced.
3. All state agencies that confer taxpayer-funded public benefits and state issued identification shall undergo emergency rule making to address this issue if necessary.”
Source: Arizona Executive Order 2012-06
Even though it’s obvious that Jan Brewer’s motives are rooted in racism, she is correct in the notion that those granted deferred action will still not be considered legal residents. So, was this an Obama Administration lie for political gain–the notion that some people under deferred action will be eligible for legal employment–or is there something we’re all missing?
As I watched all of the hopeful faces, waiting patiently in line for a turn to submit an application to the deferred action program, I felt sad and frustrated. It disgusts me that these young people don’t already have a permanent solution to their “documentation problem.”
Obama said that he made the policy change because “it is the right thing to do.” Yet, I’m not so sure that any of us can trust his judgement when it comes to the right thing to do. After all, he sees nothing wrong with bombing innocent people and killing U.S. citizens via drone strikes. Can we really trust Obama to do the “right thing” by these young people? Can we trust that the government won’t take the information provided in these deferred action applications and use it against people who deserve the opportunity to stay permanently in the country they’ve known from childhood?
My fear is that the trust gained for political purposes by the Obama Administration will be betrayed at some point in the future. I truly hope that I am wrong about this. If I were in the shoes of undocumented immigrants who are eligible for the program, I would wait at least a few months before applying, just to see what happens–whether people will be denied frequently, or to see if there are additional policy changes. At a minimum , I would wait until after the election. Actually, I would probably wait until there is a program in place that would lead to citizenship. I really empathize with the position in which all undocumented immigrants find themselves–between a rock and a hard place.