President Obama’s June 15 announcement of temporary deportation stays for eligible undocumented youth under 30 years old not only immediately changed hundreds of thousands of lives, but also dropped a new ingredient and possible game changer into the political pot of the 2012 elections.
Sentiments of deep personal relief were evident in the words of Johana Perez, a New Mexico high school student who came to the U.S. when she was only 2 years old.
“This joyful day means that as a high school student, I now have more options to realize my potential,” Perez said in a statement distributed by Somos un Pueblo Unido, a New Mexico immigrant and labor advocacy organization. “I have been living with the fear of being separated from my parents and going back to a country I don’t know.”
Many organizations backing the passage of the long-stalled DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth enrolled in higher education or serving in the military, greeted President Obama’s announcement with emotion, praising the White House’s new posture while lauding the pivotal role of undocumented youth who have waged public protests, marches, hunger strikes and Congressional lobbying campaigns for more than a decade.
“Today we have tears of joy,” declared Lorella Praeli, member of the United We Dream National Coordinating Committee.
Marcela Diaz, Somos un Pueblo Unidos’ executive director, said the White House action built on and validated the “foresight” of policy-makers in her state who chose to “integrate immigrants, rather than alientate them” by permitting undocumented students in higher education to pay in-state tuition and making them eligible for financial aid.
In addition to delaying deportation proceedings for two years, the Obama Administration’s administrative action allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for work permits.
Dr. David Fleming, senior pastor of the Champion Baptist Church in Houston, characterized the decision as a “humane and common-sense decision on behalf of the children who were brought here through no action or fault of their own.” This week, 150 evangelical leaders came together to launch the Evangelical Immigration Table in support of reform.
On the other side of the coin, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio dismissed Obama’s announcement as “pure politicking.”
Indeed, as the 2012 U.S. election season heats up, Obama’s action is likely to have political repercussions and could even influence the outcome of the presidential and other races at both the national and state levels.
Coming close to the U.S. Supreme Court’s expected decision on the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law, the DREAM decision could enhance the importance of the immigration question in the U.S. elections and make it a bigger issue than might have been the case.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential hopeful who had earlier pledged to veto the DREAM Act if elected to the presidency, judged the June 15 announcement as a problematic one for a long-term solution to the immigration controversy. “I would prefer laws,” Romney said.
But the DRM Capitol Group said the pressure is now on the Republicans to “come more aggressively to the immigration negotiation table” in order to find a viable, “permanent legislative fix” to the status of millions of residents in legal and political limbo. “We will ensure that people go out to vote to keep the executive order alive,” vowed Caesar Vargas, managing partner of the DRM Capitol Group.
The Obama Administration’s action quickly rippled across borders, garnering international attention and commentary. The news was splashed across the front page of the Mexico City daily La Jornada and the subject of extensive coverage on CNN en Español and Mexican television networks.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon praised the White House for undertaking a “brave” initiative, while Salvadoran Chancellor Hugo Martinez said the new U.S. policy answered his country’s petition to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to show flexibility with certain groups of immigrants.
“We are pleased,” Martinez added. According to Human Rights Watch, the DREAM policy shift now brings the U.S. in line with nations that “require consideration of a person’s positive attachments to a country of residence in deportation decisions.”
While welcoming the news on the DREAM front, some U.S. pro-immigrant activists urged caution.
Nataly Ibarra, a 17-year-old high school student in Atlanta who was arrested for protesting the Georgia state immigration law last year, told a CNN interviewer that she was happy about Obama’s move but skeptical of the motives.
“I think (Obama) is saying this so (Latinos) will trust him and go out to vote for him again, ” Ibarra said, adding that earlier administration pledges to scrutinize deportations had not been fulfilled. A native of Mexico City who was brought to El Norte when she was 4 years old, Ibarra asserted that stronger administrative action was needed in ending deportations.
The Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance (RITA) noted that the June 15 announcement followed recent occupations of Obama campaign offices by DREAM activists. “Make no mistake, DREAMers made this happen,” RITA said in a statement. The group unites pro-immigrant organizations from El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, Brownsville San Juan and Harlingen.
“Even if this promise is kept, it is not enough,” RITA insisted. “True immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants is the only solution.”
Additional sources: La Jornada, June 16, 2012. Articles by AFP, DPA and editorial staff. CNN en Espanol, June 15 and 16, 2012. Milenio Noticias, June 15 and 16, 2012. Televisa, June 15, 2012.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico