Monday, June 18, 2012

Obama's New Immigration Directive a Positive Step, But Not Enough

By Carlin Christy, WFP Mexico and Tony Macias former WFP Mexico Team Member

A new policy move by President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could halt the deportation of over 800,000 undocumented youth without providing a pathway to citizenship.  In President Obama's carefully-delivered words, "this is not amnesty, this is not immunity... This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people."

This is a true victory for the thousands of youth that have come out as undocumented, unafraid and unwilling to continue living in the shadows, while waiting for comprehensive immigration reform.
Immigrant’s rights activists, including Dreamers, are applauding the move by Obama as a step in the right direction, but one that still falls far short of comprehensive immigration reform and a resolution for the other 11 million immigrants who do not meet the program’s requirements.

Despite the fact that the June 15 announcement by the Obama administration is most likely a political move to garner votes in the upcoming election, it is seen as positive given the harsh state laws and federal immigration policies that have dominated the political landscape for the last several years.  Dreamers and undocumented people who have told their stories and organized to demand their rights and recognition in society are the driving force behind putting young immigrants on the political radar.

The executive measure would allow youth that meet a series of stringent requirements to remain in the U.S. and apply for renewable work permits. Any of the over 11 million remaining undocumented immigrants that don't meet these rules are still fair game for detention and deportation.

The burden would be on undocumented youth to prove to Homeland Security (and any agencies collaborating with ICE) that they have met the following requirements: to qualify for this special status and a work permit you must be under 30 years old, have entered the US before you were 16, have lived in the U.S. for five years, be free of a criminal record, and have earned a high-school diploma, an honorable discharge from the military, or be currently enrolled in school. This status is "subject to renewal" every two years, provided the policy remains in effect under the next presidential administration beginning in 2013. It is uncertain what would happen to any immigrant youth that registers with DHS if renewal is denied or if the policy itself is repealed. One possibility is that he or she would receive an order for deportation.

Over 90% of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. under second-class status would not qualify for this program and will continue to face criminalization, exploitative working conditions, deportation, fear, and family separation.  Moreover, any young person convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or multiple misdemeanors would not be eligible. Anyone seen as posing a threat to national security or public safety would also not be eligible, although it is unclear how this would be determined. Any qualifying youth already in removal proceedings may be granted this status if they have already been offered prosecutorial discretion.

While it is mirrored after many provisions of the DREAM Act, this policy is not a law and has not been approved by Congress. According to DHS, only the U.S. Congress has the power to "confer substantive right, immigration status, or pathway to citizenship." Both President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the right of executive discretion in applying immigration law, particularly in the case of undocumented youth seen as “productive" and "patriotic." While preferable to rampant hate speech directed at immigrants by the right-wing, this civil rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the record number of deportations carried out under the Obama Administration.

Although a positive step in reforming domestic immigration enforcement, this policy is not paired with any other measures to address the root economic issues that push migration to the U.S. in the first place. With the promotion of free trade agreements throughout the Americas, U.S. trade policy has led to increased economic instability in immigrants’ countries of origin. Also left unaddressed are the dangerous conditions faced by migrants. Many die trying to reach the U.S. Central Americans who travel on trains headed north face considerable risks including kidnappings, injuries, assaults, robberies and rape- all before even reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Once in the border region, migrants face harsh environmental conditions, possible kidnapping and murder by criminal organizations, or even abuse from border officials.

The U.S. government’s militarized strategy to fighting the “war on drugs” in the Americas negatively affects public security in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This approach has created nearly 250,000 internally displaced people in Mexico and has provoked conditions of violence and instability that lead many to migrate from other countries as well.

Dreamers and undocumented people who have stepped out of the shadows to demand their rights and recognition in society are the driving force behind this policy move. Until there is recognition of U.S. policies’ role in pushing migration from sending countries and mobilization to change these policies, conditions that create migration will continue.  A victory was achieved for young undocumented immigrants this past Friday, but the larger struggle for global economic justice and full recognition of all immigrants in the U.S. will continue to strengthen and grow across borders.

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