Why some illegal immigrants aren't celebrating Obama’s new policy

Some young illegal immigrants remain skeptical that President Obama's new policy, which could give renewable US work permits to 800,000 immigrants, will actually work.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Myrna Orozco, 22, of Kansas City, Mo., an illegal immigrant originally from Mexico, wipes away tears while watching President Obama on Friday announce a new policy that directs authorities to stop deporting some younger illegal immigrants and begin granting them work permits.

An Obama administration announcement met by cheers and tears of joy from immigration activists has left at least some young illegal immigrants skeptical. 

With Hispanic voters upset by his failure to prod Congress into action on immigration reform, President Obama announced a policy shift Friday that could allow some 800,000 undocumented immigrants age 30 or younger to remain and work in the United States legally.

[Editor's NoteThe original version of this story misstated the nature of the policy change made by the Obama administration. The change extends an existing policy of prosecutorial discretion in prioritizing the deportation of certain individuals rather than being an executive order.]

Republicans in Congress expectedly attacked the policy, calling it an end-run around the legislative process and a form of back-door amnesty that represented “a breach of faith with the American people," according to Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas

But more surprisingly, some of the very people set to benefit from the policy change questioned the timing and actual impact of the policy change. Despite Mr. Obama's apparent and repeated efforts to soften immigration policy, they note, his administration has deported record numbers of immigrants.

“The national groups are all celebrating and saying, 'Let’s congratulate the president for what he’s doing,' but a lot of people don’t know how it feels to be undocumented, and a lot of us are not going to believe it,” says Jose Rico, an undocumented Mexican who is attending community college in North Carolina and is a member of an activist group, North Carolina Dream Team. “The president has already said we’re not going to deport any more [young immigrants], but record numbers are still being deported.”

Eye on ICE

Their concerns center on how Obama's order will be carried out. The new policy pushes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to approve "deferred deportations" for undocumented immigrants who are age 30 or under, arrived in the US before age 16, have lived in the US for at least five years, have no criminal record, and are either in school or the military or have a high school diploma.

Once they have received a deferred deportation order, qualifying immigrants can apply for a two-year work permit. Youths who are under deportation orders can also ask for deferred action in order to apply for the permits.

The catch, says Mr. Rico, is that ICE still holds the authority – Obama is only asking it to defer deportations. So far, the agency that has to some extent stonewalled the president’s previous calls to go easy on younger Latino immigrants. ICE deported a record 396,906 people during fiscal year 2011. 

Obama has already attempted to rein in ICE. Last August, for example, he asked it to deport only the worst and most hardened criminals. But many undocumented immigrants do not trust the agency, and that might prevent them from coming "out of the shadows," as Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois put it, to apply for a deferral. 

“We’ve got one person, Obama, saying you’re going to be safe," says Rico. 

The Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, essentially acknowledge that in a press release. “Deferred action requests are decided on a case-by-case basis. DHS cannot provide any assurance that all such requests will be granted. The use of prosecutorial discretion confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano brushed off Republican charges that the policy is simply amnesty by another name. “It is not immunity, it is not amnesty,” Napolitano said. The shift is “well within the framework of existing laws.”

Political implications

No matter how the policy is implemented, the policy itself could reinvigorate a Latino voting bloc that has lost patience in Obama. While Obama has a 2-to-1 edge in support among Latinos, the Obama campaign has been concerned that only half of all eligible Latino voters – and an even greater proportion of young Latinos – are registered to vote in the November election.

“This is a shift from the president saying that his hands are tied and he has to work with Congress to a president that has become more forceful and a stronger leader on the immigration issue,” says Matt Barretto, a political scientist who studies Latino issues at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This highlights the disconnect with Republicans … and will be viewed with great enthusiasm in the Latino community."

"It will further push Latinos in the Democrat column” in a year when “Latino turnout and enthusiasm has a huge ability to impact the [election] results,” he adds.

Obama's order is similar in scope and intent to the DREAM Act, an immigration bill that Republicans defeated in 2010. The act would provide a path to citizenship to the same immigrants targeted for deferrals in Friday's announcement. A poll released last week by Latino Decisions shows 87 percent of US Latinos in favor of a DREAM Act-like policy of citizenship for young undocumented residents. It’s a winner among non-Latinos, too, with 63 percent of Americans supporting the idea.

Critics dismiss both the DREAM Act and Obama's executive order. “The DREAM Act has been a marketing gimmick all along, and it’s still being used as a marketing gimmick,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank. “Eventually Charlie figures out Lucy is going to pull the football, and the DREAM Act kids are figuring that out finally as well.”

Still, Obama's move will put pressure on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who called for tougher border enforcement and “self-deportation” by illegal immigrants during the primaries, but has begun more serious Hispanic outreach and is mulling potential policy prescriptions. Next week, both he and Obama are scheduled to address Hispanic leaders.

One Romney option is to back Sen. Marco Rubio’s effort to pass a watered-down DREAM Act. Rico, for one, is intrigued by what Romney might do. 

Romney "might not be that bad," he says. “I think Romney has a really good chance if he pulls through and gives us something where things actually change.”

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