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.

Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle/AP
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.

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.

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. 

Obama’s new policy, by contrast, offers only two years of “deferred action,” meaning a stay of deportation proceedings, a Social Security number, and the opportunity to apply for a work permit under roughly similar eligibility conditions.  

Strike three: The Obama administration deported nearly 320,000 people in 2011, a jump of more than 20 percent from 2008, the last year of President George W. Bush’s second term.

“The DREAMers are watching closely, and [the Obama administration is] going to have a lot of work to do after they’ve been tearing families apart over the last four years,” says Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration at First Focus, a children’s policy advocacy organization.

Whether the proposal succeeds or fails for DREAMers will have much to do with how smoothly the bureaucratic gears grind. Is the Department of Homeland Security’s division charged with handling DACA, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), up to the task of handling perhaps as many as several hundred thousand applications?

Republican critics of the program say it is not, citing only 60 days' notice since Obama announced the policy shift. They worry that the government will thus be lax in evaluating potential applicants.  

“The president’s amnesty program is a magnet for fraud and abuse. While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a statement Tuesday.

Immigrant advocates say they like what they’ve heard from USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, who walked through some of the implementation details during a speech last week at a Migration Policy Institute seminar. 

Just because the policy was announced in June doesn’t mean that’s when planning began, says Charles Wheeler, director of the National Legal Center for Immigrants of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. The fact that DHS “will have [an application] form, and they will have an address, and they will be up and running” in such a short time is a sign that it is taking the potential challenge seriously, says Mr. Wheeler, who has more than three decades' experience in immigration law. 

Still, USCIS recognizes the challenge ahead. Mr. Mayorkas last week would not offer a window for how long the USCIS will take to work through an application because it simply doesn’t know how many it will receive and what the challenges will be. 

“They certainly aren’t Polyanna-ish” about potential problems, says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at MPI and a former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service who moderated the panel discussion with Mayorkas. “It will be bigger than any single caseload that they’ve handled, and it has the added element of tremendous amount of scrutiny that will be on it just because of the nature of the population, the way in which it came up, as well as the critics that will be watching.”

And not all the critics are Republicans. 

“If they fail again, I think that is really going to once again disappoint the community,” says Ms. Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center. “It really will just shatter a lot of the trust in the administration for actual change and implementation of a program like this. That’s why the stakes are so high.”

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