Undocumented youth deportation: Advocates joyful, skeptical of Obama policy change

Today brings big news, high hopes and timid reservations about immigration. The Obama administration has announced it will halt the deportation of undocumented youth who immigrated to the country as children and don't pose threats to national security, and will offer work permits to eligible students. The news follows years of advocacy from immigrant rights networks, whose members are both excited by and skeptical of the change.

The announcement came from Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security: Effective this morning, youth younger than thirty who moved to the United States before they turned sixteen will no longer be considered eligible for deportation if they have lived here for a minimum of five years, are enrolled in school (or have a GED, are military veterans, etc.) and maintain a relatively clean criminal record. For additional details, see the full press release from the Department of Homeland Security.

Those who are eligible for protection can also apply for a two-year work permit, which they can then apply to renew as many times as they'd like. The option comes with no term limits. According to reports, this news is expected to impact approximately 800,000 undocumented DREAMers inside the United States who were, even earlier this morning, eligible for deportation.

As the election approaches, the policy reversal bypasses legislation to provide immediate relief amid a Congressional climate that offered little chance of supporting it while also channels many of the implications contained in the proposed DREAM Act. In the meantime, the administration is still navigating the finer details of the policy change.

In Denver, the big news arrives days after two undocumented youth staged a sit-in and hunger strike at local Obama headquarters, where they called for the President to sign an executive order to the same effect. Javier Hernandez and Veronica Gomez slept but did not eat inside the downtown Obama For America office for almost a week to shine the spotlight on direct actions from fellow protesters. When Westword caught up with Hernandez this morning, almost four days after leaving the office, his happiness was measured.

"We are not celebrating just yet because we want to make sure this is something good and lasting for our community," Hernandez said as he waited to watch Obama's speech on the issue from a youth immigration conference in Los Angeles. With the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and the Campaign for an American Dream, he rallied for an executive order, which this announcement is not. "Automatically, the potential to close all the youth deportations that are happening right now is amazing, and for those who are not being deported to be able renew their work permits is great, but we want to see it in practice."

A similarly tempered reaction came from the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, whose staff and members are dedicated to issues of immigration advocacy and policy development across the state. "Our immediate reaction is that we're happy to see the Obama administration is making a decision and taking this seriously, but at the same time, we're going to be keeping track of the implementation of this," says Alan Kaplan, CIRC's communications director. "It's not an executive order that grants DREAMers a chance, and quite frankly, we've never seen prosecutorial discretion work well before, so we're a little wary. We definitely feel this is a great thing, that Obama took a strong step, but we've been doing this for a long time, and we've been told a number of things would be solutions that have not turned out to be so in the long-term."

As CIRC greets the news, the group and its partners in the community will be turning their attention to how its relief is applied. Kaplan says prosecutorial discretion has rarely been applied to deportation cases, and only in a limited capacity. However, he hopes it will be used more broadly in the future. "Until we see that happen," he says, "we won't be quite giddy yet."

More from our Politics archives: "Undocumented immigrant activists call off hunger strike, sit-in."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple