Obama's immigration action addresses 'huge' uncertainty for many students

President Obama's executive action not only expands the number of students who can apply for deferred deportation but also includes many of their parents. Still, there is disappointment in some quarters that it didn't go further.

Aaron Lavinsky/The Star Tribune/AP
From left, Rosa Sari, Erika Tacuri, and Rose Tacuri take part in a prayer lead by Rev. Howard Dotson after President Obama's speech on immigration reform Thursday at Mercado Central in Minneapolis.

President Obama’s executive actions on immigration could go a long way toward supporting the educational aspirations of millions of students, educators and immigration-reform advocates say.

One part of Mr. Obama’s move will allow the undocumented parents of US citizens or lawful residents to apply for three years of protection from deportation, as well as work permits, so long as they arrived before 2010. Another part expands a 2012 decision to defer deportation of so-called “Dreamers” – students who came to the United States illegally while they were young.

Critics say the actions are simply a step toward a broader amnesty for undocumented immigrants. But supporters argue that the directive will pay educational dividends.  

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty that hovers over the daily existence of mixed families [with some members authorized to be in the United States and some not] or unauthorized children’s lives,” says Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit supporting schools with high numbers of immigrants.

Obama’s action “provides a certain amount of stability to young people and their families so they can focus on developing their skills and knowledge and integrating into American society,” Ms. Sylvan says.

About 7 percent of students in K-12 schools have at least one undocumented immigrant parent, according to a new Pew Research report based on 2012 data. An estimated 4.1 million people will be eligible for relief under the part of Obama’s plan that protects parents.

The other part expands Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which covered students who were under 31, could show they came to the US before 2007 and before turning 16, had resided here for the past five years continually, met educational or military-service requirements, and did not pose a threat to public safety or national security.

The new DACA will offer three years of deportation protection and work permits (up from two years). It will include those who arrived before 2010 and remove the age cap so people over 31 will be eligible. This expansion could affect about 250,000 people.

On Friday, Obama will be speaking about the new plan at a Las Vegas high school. He’ll also be meeting with Astrid Silva, who came to the US as a toddler, applied to a technology magnet school behind her parents’ backs because they were afraid their undocumented status would be discovered, and is now a college student.

“DACA has had a huge effect” on students’ aspirations, says Sylvan. She’s seen dropouts return to high school because it’s given them hope for a future. Without such hope, “at the beginning of senior year you often see people thinking about suicide, because suddenly they realize all their efforts are hitting up against a reality in terms of college that they really didn’t compute,” she says.

Students in some states are able to get in-state tuition regardless of their immigration status, but for some, DACA status opens that door. The president’s actions don’t make them eligible for federal grants or loans, however, so it’s still a struggle to pay for college, says Renata Teodoro, a coordinator for the Student Immigration Movement in Boston, which organizes free clinics to help students apply for DACA.

Ms. Teodoro applied on the first day of the program in 2012 and got her work permit about nine months later. She’s taking classes toward a degree in public policy, but just two at a time, because that’s all she can afford. DACA “made me feel a lot more at ease with working,” she says.

She’s thrilled that fellow activists who had missed the previous cutoff marks will now be able to apply for DACA status. But she’s disappointed that Obama did not go so far as to offer protection to students who arrived before age 18 or to the parents of Dreamers.

“It’s hard for the parents, seeing their children be able to work legally … [but] they could be deported at any time…. They want to be the ones supporting their children and not vice versa,” she says.

That was likely a political calculation, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for lower immigration levels. “Maybe they [the Obama administration] decided amnestying the parents of dreamers would undermine the argument about why the dreamers should be getting it in the first place,” he says.

For Mr. Krikorian and others who oppose Obama’s executive actions, the focus on children pursuing education is just the first step – “to create poster children for a broader amnesty,” as Krikorian puts it.

For the National Education Association, Obama’s moves are laudable, but comprehensive immigration reform is still an important goal. “Educators know from experience that family unity plays a critical role in student success…. Educators will continue to push to end the harmful paralysis in the U.S. House of Representatives and demand swift action on comprehensive immigration reform,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in a statement.

However, for Republicans in Congress, including House education leaders, Obama’s actions dim the prospect of agreeing on a solution. “The president's brazen disregard for the rule of law and the constitutional limits of his office continues to divide our nation….  [T]his decision will make it even harder to address the challenges facing our classrooms and workplaces,” said John Kline (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in a statement.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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