Media sources around the country are abuzz about President Obama’s recent immigration policy memo. The new policy will halt deportation of certain youths who arrived in the US under the age of 16, have lived here for at least five years, are not above the age of 30 and who have no criminal record. The new rules are estimated to affect 800,000 young people who will now have greater rights and access to opportunities that were previously prohibited, specifically the opportunity to obtain a temporary work permit.
As Obama recognized in his speech, the new law provides a long-awaited reprieve for many young people who have lived their entire lives in the US, and yet are barred from participation in the most basic rights of citizenship.
“These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
The President’s speech acknowledges that young undocumented people are valuable and make important contributions to the nation. Unfortunately, this acknowledgement has yet to be extended to all immigrants. In his speech, the President perpetuated the idea that the parents of these young people are to blame. He said that it would be tragic to “expel” these youth “simply because of the actions of their parents.” The news coverage, similarly, played into this commonly held view that immigrants who came to the US for opportunities are criminals. Many news outlets further perpetuated the “criminal immigrant” stereotype with wide usage of the i-word, a pejorative term that has been denounced by the Society of Professional Journalists. While this policy memo will be critical for the improved opportunities of a small group of undocumented immigrants, it will also continue to be critical to fight the ongoing criminalization of other immigrants who are not considered young, bright or innocent.
Not surprisingly, the move by the President, has been seen as a highly political decision. In the Republican primaries, Romney took a very harsh anti-immigrant stance – but has since changed his tune as he prepares for the general election. The President’s plan has drawn a stark contrast between his and Romney’s approach to immigration. Early polls show strong popular support for the new policy, including among key constituencies such as Latino and Independent voters, and voters in battleground states such as Florida, Colorado and Arizona.
Meanwhile Republicans have scrambled to come up with a response to the memo. Senior Republicans – particularly those engaged in campaigning for November – have largely kept quiet on the issue. Romney avoided answering any questions about immigration at several campaign events during the week. And Marco Rubio, previously working on a Republican version of the DREAM Act, has abandoned his efforts in light of Obama’s announcement. However, some of the more conservative Republicans are actively pursuing efforts to overturn the law. Republican congressman Ben Quayle introduced a bill, “Prohibiting Back-Door Amnesty Act of 2012” to prevent the President’s law from taking effect.
This policy is an essential first step in reforming an immigration and deportation system that causes enormous health and economic harms for immigrant families and our communities. However, the rules offer only a temporary legal status, not a path to citizenship. Even Obama acknowledges that the law is not a “permanent fix” but rather “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.” Truly addressing the health consequences of our immigration system will require longer-term measures that provide more extensive protections and opportunities to all of the country’s immigrants.