For thousands of high school and college students in Colorado leaving home for school each day has carried with it a unique concern not shared by many of their friends or classmates. They understood, as they left home each day, that finding themselves in the wrong situation could mean a long-term separation from their families. They knew that crossing paths with U.S. Immigration authorities could mean deportation.
But last Friday, the Obama Administration lifted this weight off the shoulders of as many as 800,000 young men and women — mostly Mexican — who came to this country with their parents. President Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop deporting younger, law abiding immigrants and begin granting work permits that would allow them to, at least temporarily, live, work and study in the country openly and freely.
For 16-year-old Itzel, a rising junior at a Denver high school, the president’s new immigration policy on young people is a huge relief. “If I had to go back, it would be like going to a different country,” she says. While she still has family in Mexico, “my life is here; all of my friends live here. It would be like starting all over and I don’t want to do that.”
Sitting outside a Denver library in the Barnum neighborhood, Itzel, her younger sister, Alejandra and their friend, Brayan — all of whom were brought here by their parents — say America is really the only country they know. But, in the same breath, they say they also know that they can’t afford to make foolish choices that could warrant unwanted or unnecessary attention.
“Be careful,” is the warning 14-year-old Brayan gets from his parents when he leaves the house. “They always tell me, ‘do the right thing so we don’t have contact with the law.’” The warning is both repetitious and ironic. Brayan, who speaks in soft, accented English, says he wants to be a cop. “I want to be on the SWAT team.”
The presidential edict, which bypassed Congress, is not completely precise. But essentially, it means that young people who came to the U.S. before age 16, are younger than 30 and have been here for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from an American high school or earned a GED or served in the military will be allowed to remain. They can apply for a work permit that is good for two years. The permit can also be renewed.
The new immigration policy is not a path toward citizenship but takes away the threat of deportation. It also moves toward the goals of the DREAM Act, legislation that establishes a legitimate path toward citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
“I think it’s fantastic,” says Denver immigration attorney Jessica Kunevicius. She says the whole immigration community — attorneys and clients — was caught off guard by the announcement. And while generally pleased with the change in policy, Kunevicius says she wants to see the details, which the administration says will be rolled out within 60 days.
“Something had to be done,” she says. “He (Obama) hasn’t been shy about border enforcement.” In fact, this administration has arrested and deported more illegal immigrants than any previous administration. “He had to have an equally powerful agenda to also balance things.”
The new policy has been greeted with disapproval from Congressional Republicans who have labeled it unacceptable and an election year ploy designed to win the critical Latino vote. Indeed, The Pew Foundation recently did a poll that showed 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of the president’s immigration policy.
Gov. Romney, the Republican Party presidential candidate has been vague about how he would deal with the issue. But during a campaign debate, the former Massachusetts governor said he favored of a voluntary mass self-deportation for illegal immigrants.
But despite Republican reticence to embrace the president’s new immigration plan, it has reignited a necessary debate, says Fidel ‘Butch’ Montoya, former Denver Manager of Safety now spokesman for Confianza Ministerial Alliance, a consortium of Metro area religious leaders.
“We are not ready to put up the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on immigration,” Montoya says. “This is a step — almost historic — in the right direction and I give the president credit for making this very bold move.” The former television news executive called it the “beginning of a much needed discussion, but a long way from comprehensive immigration reform.”
The whole issue of immigration has caused a number of states to enact new immigration laws. One such law, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, has made its way to the Supreme Court where it was argued earlier this year. A decision on its legality could come within weeks.
But Arizona’s law, which is designed to shut off the faucet on immigration, is still not the country’s harshest. That designation may go to Alabama whose law may also be challenged in court.
The ACLU says Alabama’s House Bill 56 denies immigrants any public benefits to which they are legally entitled, including public school. It also interferes with their ability to rent housing, earn a living or enter into contracts. It also orders police to detain and investigate people based on “suspicion” that they may be undocumented.
Though HB 56 has gone into effect, the state’s legislature has made the decision to amend parts of it that carried with it unintended consequences, including its impact on state agriculture. Alabama lost hundreds of millions and, according to some projections, perhaps more than a billion dollars in the state’s agricultural sector when workers could not be found to harvest an array of farm crops. It also lost hundreds of millions in taxes normally collected from undocumented workers.
“I just want things to get solved,” Itzel says. “I like my life here and I really enjoy school, especially ROTC,” where she holds the rank of staff sergeant. She says if she can stay in the country she might join the Army where she can begin a career in nursing. “That’s all I want. I want to be an American.”