Nothing raises the ire of Mexicans more than stories like this: a young Mexican, brought illegally to the US as a baby, is deported as a young adult back “home,” despite having no family ties in Mexico, and often not even speaking Spanish.
Now President Obama has taken a step hailed in Mexico: He's called for ending deportations – effective immediately – and beginning to grant work permits for young illegal immigrants who have been in the US since they were children.
“It is definitely a source of a lot of moral distress because the kids are American in their upbringing and their culture,” says David Mena Alemán, a professor of international affairs at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. “Among people realistic in their views about immigration, this is a very good step forward.”
The plan was announced Friday by Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano, and has been described as a temporary fix. Illegal immigrants who are under age 30 but brought to the US before they were 16 are eligible for a deportation waiver and can apply for a two-year work permit. Those eligible must be in school or have a high school or equivalent degree. The policy also applies to those who have served in the military. All must be law-abiding, as well. It could affect some 800,000 immigrants.
The move is being praised by Latinos and activists in the US ahead of the November Presidential election. The plan is likely to draw fierce criticism among Republicans who often dub such policies "backdoor amnesty," and seek tighter border enforcement and stricter policies overall.
Seeking to stave off some of that criticism, Ms. Napolitano said Friday: “It is not immunity. It is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion to ensure these people are not in the removal process and ensure that we are not clogging the immigration system with low-priority cases involving productive young people."
“This is essentially the Dream Act for these young people,” says Analicia Ruiz, an expert on US-Mexican relations at Anahuac University in Mexico City. “Obama has not been able to push through comprehensive immigration reform, but he is making adjustments to get on the right track.”
Some of Obama's immigration policies have been controversial. There has been a record deportation rate since he came to office, for example, forcing Mexicans to make ends meet in rural towns that they had long left behind.
But he has also announced that his administration will focus on deporting illegal immigrants who are deemed a public security threat to the US.
Many in Mexico say this latest move is an important acknowledgement that many Mexicans in the US, who have literally never stepped on Mexican soil, belong in America. “This will raise his popularity in Mexico,” Ms. Ruiz says.