President Barack Obama announced Friday afternoon that the Department of Homeland Security will no longer attempt to deport young undocumented immigrants brought here as children, signaling a compassionate shift in an immigration policy whose hallmark was aggressive enforcement and record-shattering deportation numbers.
With a few big caveats, undocumented immigrants meeting all of these criteria may be off the hook, at least temporarily: You were brought here before you turned 16, but you're not older than 30. You are enrolled in school, have a diploma, GED certificate, or military service with an honorable discharge. You have lived continuously in the United States for five years. And you haven't been convicted of a felony, a string of misdemeanors or otherwise pose some threat.
I spoke with a couple of immigration attorneys, and apparently they're deluged with calls from clients. Some 800,000 young people may be covered by the new policy. "They're really excited," Dallas immigration attorney Lisa Schwamkrug tells Unfair Park. "Because all of the sudden, it's a glimmer a hope."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a memo to her managers that immigration laws must be enforced, but not "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."
While this is good news for young undocumented immigrants -- and a wily bit of politicking by a president whose immigration policies have flown in the face of campaign-trail promises -- they should read the fine print first.
The policy memo directs ICE and Customs to begin using their on-the-ground discretion immediately. Citizenship and Immigration Services is ordered to implement what is known as "deferred action" for this category of immigrants within 60 days. It's a good sign that the administration is moving quickly. But bear in mind, deferred action is exactly what it sounds like. It means the federal government isn't placing you in removal proceedings now. In fact, the memo says specifically that the deferral is good for two years before the next re-evaluation. What happens after that is anyone's guess. "The question becomes: What if the person is granted deferred action and then they turn 30," Schwamkrug asks. "Does that mean it won't be renewed?"
If it isn't, and that person doesn't have some sort of legal status, current policy is to automatically forward them to immigration court for removal proceedings. Two years-worth of work authorization may be small recompense for imminent deportation.
Perhaps the biggest wild card here is the November presidential election. Obama's policy is just that. It doesn't amount to citizenship, nor is it law, enacted by Congress. You can bet one of Mitt Romney's first acts as president would be to rescind Napolitano's memo. And then what? Young people who have lived their lives as Americans announce their presence as undocumented immigrants and become subject to removal proceedings. "You're luring people out, dangling a carrot of employment authorization in exchange for putting themselves on the radar," Schwamkrug says. "As attorneys, we'd have to lay everything out to our clients and let the clients make the choice. We can't tell them what to do. But I personally think there's cause for concern."
In other words, the undocumented American may rejoice, but must remain mindful that there's no permanence to Obama's extended hand. And in just five short months, it may be snatched away altogether.
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