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DREAMer policy on illegal immigrants goes live. Can it backfire on Obama?

Obama has a lot riding on effective implementation of his new policy to give some young illegal immigrants a reprieve from deportation. If the government botches it, backlash in the Latino community could hurt him politically.

By Staff writer / August 15, 2012

Hundreds of illegal immigrants counting on the DREAM Act passing wait in line to get a passport or any other kind of assistance outside the Mexican Consulate, Tuesday, in Houston.

Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle/AP

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Washington

President Obama’s decision earlier this year to offer work permits and a two-year stay of deportation for some young undocumented immigrants was ripped by Republicans as an election-year giveaway to Mr. Obama’s Latino supporters – but it also carries political risk for the Obama administration itself.

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The so-called “DREAMers” can begin applying Wednesday under the new Obama program, formally known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The risk is that few people will trust the government enough to apply for the program and that it becomes an election-year sop with little impact among DREAMers – leaving the broader Latino community feeling let down by the president, say advocates for immigrants. 

“If they [Obama officials] screw this up, the implications are pretty severe,” says Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center and a DACA program supporter. “Not only will it have a chilling effect [on relations between US immigration authorities and undocumented individuals], but it could have political implications from the community as well.”

Obama’s support in the Hispanic-American community has been strong: Roughly 2 in 3 Latino voters went for the president in 2008. Among Asian-Americans, the second largest group of potential DREAMers, 6 in 10 voted for Obama. 

The DACA program is “something the president was able to give to us which benefitted us,” says Jorge Acuña, an undocumented immigrant from Colombia who lives in Germantown, Md. He says he will be applying for the DACA designation – one of the 1.2 million DREAMers the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates are eligible for the program. 

Mr. Acuña, who wants to be a neurosurgeon and is currently studying for his associate's degree, was nearly deported with his family earlier this year until immigration officials decided, under pressure from members of the Maryland congressional delegation and protests from Acuna’s friends, to give the family a one-year reprieve.

“What [Obama] did is going to give the DREAMers more strength to keep pushing through this," says Acuña, who has become an organizer in the DREAMer community since his brush with deportation. "I know a lot of people [in the immigrant and Latino community] were losing hope and losing faith.”  

Hope and faith have dwindled because the Obama administration has, in the eyes of immigration advocates and many DREAMers themselves, three strikes against it already. 

Strike one: Obama did not achieve comprehensive immigration reform, a 2008 campaign promise. 

Strike two: Democrats in Congress could not garner enough Republican support to pass the bill that gives DREAMers their name – the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill passed the House in 2010 but fell a handful of votes short in the Senate.

That legislation lays out a six-year path for undocumented individuals to eventually become US citizens if they were brought to the US before the age of 16, have been in the country for five years continuously, are pursuing education or military service, have a clean criminal record, and are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of the bill’s enactment, among other requirements. 

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