Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Program that provides eligible undocumented youth with a temporary stay of deportation for a period of two years.
The new policy, a type of administrative relief from deportation that within immigration circles is referred to as “deferred action,” will also provide undocumented immigrants with the opportunity to obtain work permits.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank dedicated to the study of migration, up to 1.76 million undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 could be positively impacted by the new program.
The bold and controversial change in DHS policy, announced by President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on June 15, is a welcome step in the right direction and seems almost tailor-made for individuals that would also qualify for a proposed federal bill known as the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act would extend a path to citizenship to undocumented youth – frequently referred to as DREAMers – who meet very similar qualifications as those that have been spelled out for the deferred action policy.
Although the temporary deferred action policy does not grant a path to citizenship, as the DREAM Act would, or otherwise confer any kind of permanent legal status, the requirements to qualify for both are strikingly similar.
DREAMers and deferred action
And there’s a reason for the similarities. The DREAM Act has been around since 2001, and although it’s been brought up for a vote several times in its legislative history, it has failed to pass.
Due to congressional inaction on this front, undocumented youth have emerged from the obscurity conferred upon them by their status, and have organized into local, state and national coalitions.
In the past couple of years, but especially in the last few months, they have taken to the streets in a concerted effort to focus attention on the plight of undocumented youth in this nation.
In no small way, it was several civil disobedience actions, sit-ins and hunger strikes held at Obama campaign offices, undertaken by youth activists in several states, that have put pressure on the administration to act on this front.
So it was no wonder that the June 15 announcement caused DREAmers to react to the proposed program with both joy and trepidation. The protests and civil disobedience actions showed activists that they have the power to effectively push for change and the temporary victory is a big win on the long road to eventual passage of the DREAM Act and/or comprehensive immigration reform.
The announcement also caused excitement within the ranks of those who qualify for the program, as they will be able to remain in the US without fear of deportation for a period of two years, and more importantly, will be able to obtain work permits and in some cases, driver’s licenses.
A number of undocumented youth who have already obtained, or are in the process of obtaining, a higher education degree, will be able to work in their chosen professional fields, which is something that until now, very few of them have been able to do. These are opportunities generally not granted to undocumented youth, although “deferred action” already exists, and can be extended to any individual under deportation proceedings at the discretion of the immigration officials weighing in on the case.
I’ll come back to this point further in this blog post but it’s important to keep in mind that the concept is already part and parcel of prosecutorial discretion as exercised within our immigration system.
Part of the trepidation felt by undocumented youth comes from the fact that the new executive policy is not an executive order or a change in law (and therefore, does not possess the force of law, as some would like you to believe) but a set of guidelines for a process established by the administration via DHS.
That process has to be implemented by the various agencies responsible for enforcing our immigration laws: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Previous experience has shown that implementation of this type of policy has been sketchy, and it is precisely this fact that has some wondering whether the new program will elicit the same end results.
The Morton Memo
In this case, and as it applies to the new deferred action policy, I am referring to what has come to be known as the “Morton memo.”
On June 17 2011, ICE Director John Morton released a memo that extended existing prosecutorial discretion guidelines to cover what the administration has termed, “low-priority” cases. The Obama administration has consistently made the case that DHS needs to focus limited enforcement resources on the “removal of individuals who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety, including individuals convicted of crimes with particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons, and repeat offenders,” and that furthermore, limited resources should not be expended on low-priority individuals.
The Morton memo explicitly defined “low-priority” cases and urged immigration officials to strongly consider these cases for prosecutorial discretion. Then as now, DREAMers would easily have met some of the criteria establishing immigrant youth as low-priority individuals.
But despite the Morton memo, immigrant youth and other low-priority individuals were still being deported and that is where undocumented activists decided to focus their attention.
Their protests and civil disobedience actions led them to demand an executive order from the President, which was partly responsible for the June 15 announcement of the new deferred action policy being implemented tomorrow.
Although not an executive order, the deferred action policy is an enhancement of the prosecutorial discretion guidelines released via the Morton memo.
The big question remains whether or not deferred action will be implemented in a consistent manner to all applicable, low-priority cases or whether it will meet with the same end result that the extension of prosecutorial guidelines met with.
For the time being one thing is certain, the deferred action policy presents DREAMers with the best avenue by which they can get on the road to living a semi normal life.
If it works as planned, it will provide eligible youth with protection from deportation and the ability to work, for at least the next two years. And that’s the right thing to do for these deserving young immigrants.
But the policy is only a temporary fix and could easily change as circumstances change. This highlights the fact that the DREAM Act, or comprehensive immigration reform, need to pass in order to permanently address the current circumstances of undocumented youth.
I am certain that this fact has not been overlooked by the DREAM activists who have fought so hard to get to this point.
Aldo Bello is an award-winning documentary film director and television producer and co-owner of Mind & Media, Inc, a strategic communications and media company located in Alexandria, VA. He directed and produced the documentary film, "DREAM: An American Story."
In 1999, Bello created and was co-executive producer of the public television series Frontiers of Medicine, a 39-part magazine style series that ran in the top 19 of 20 television markets until 2002. In 2002, Bello partnered with the Dr. Spock Company in the creation of Parent Sense, an eight-part television series that was also nationally distributed via public television. Shortly after graduating from the University of Maryland with a Master’s degree in Radio, Television & Film, Bello founded Mind & Media, Inc. with his wife, Dr. Marilyn Finnemore. Since 1994, Mind & Media has been providing comprehensive media strategy and full production services to help its federal government, commercial and non-profit clients solve complex communication challenges in the arenas of public information, recruitment and training.
Bello immigrated to the United States in 1974 from Santiago, Chile.
(United Press International's Commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)