Was it a DREAM fulfilled, or nothing more than a dream? The morning after Obama announced the halting of deportations of young immigrants, activists are trying to grasp what, if anything, they’ve won.
We have a promise from the White House that it will not deport an estimated several hundred thousand undocumented youth who have completed high school education or the equivalent, have clean records, and fulfill other criteria. At the very least, DREAMers have less reason to fear being rounded up and deported en masse. But the gingerly worded announcement strikes more skeptical activists as a kind of rhetorical rorschach: is it one step toward full legalization? Is it simply, as Obama himself admitted, a stopgap until Congress acts–and therefore a way to punt the issue to a political black hole? In the wake of Obama’s previous disappointing initiatives to ease up on deportations, some say the “new” White House position on DREAMers is just restating business as usual.
While the move was clearly a political calculation, many DREAMers are determined to read between Obama’s lines hope for more systemic reforms in the future. It’s a positive and heartening announcement, no doubt. But halting deportations for some does not even begin to answer the demand that DREAMers were pushing all along: an immigration system that redefines citizenship in a way that is humane, equitable, and conscious of the realities of a globalized world.
This is certainly not the first time Obama has pledged to expel only those who “deserve” deportations, focusing supposedly on those with criminal convictions. And the administration’s use of “discretion” in the past have been mired in disturbingly loose definitions of criminality. Earlier this month, immigrants rights advocates criticized the administration for failing to fulfill last year’s promises to exercise “prosecutorial discretion,” pointing to extremely low rates of suspensions initiated in deportation cases. Michele Waslin at Immigration Impact noted, “we’ve seen again and again that many of those categorized as serious criminals have not been convicted of serious or violent crimes, and some have no criminal convictions.”
Ruben Navarette at CNN remarked on the uncanny resemblance between Obama’s new policy and the dubious proposal floated by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio–both offered temporary relief and not citizenship:
Then there is the inconvenient fact that we’re not supposed to even need this kind of policy change because, according to Obama, his administration isn’t deporting DREAM’ers at all; instead, it’s concentrating its enforcement efforts on criminals. … So now we’re supposed to applaud the administration for not deporting people the president had claimed weren’t being deported in the first place.
Some critics have focused on the ambiguous language on which kinds of “criminals” would be shut out of prosecutorial discretion: “Those who have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.”
Maegan La Mala at Vivir Latino warns, “the memo is just vague enough to allow for many to not have their cases deferred.” What does that mean for those who pushed their cause by defying the law in protest?
A question that appeared over and over in @vivirlatino’s twitter feed following the announcement was how about the many DREAM activists who have been arrested in civil disobedience actions across the country? Would their arrests and charges on their record make them ineligible? Who are the national security risks that could be denied? Alleged “gang” members?
Indeed, the Bay Area is a case study in how muddled immigration enforcement becomes when youth get ensnared by local police and then exposed to federal immigration authorities. San Francisco last year enacted a policy shielding some undocumented youth from being referred to ICE by generally barring the Juvenile Probation Department from reporting youth upon a felony arrest, if they’re living with family or a legal guardian and attending school. But the new policy still allows youth to be reported to federal authorities under more serious conditions like a felony conviction.
So here’s what hasn’t changed: the impact of Obama’s administrative policy shifts depend largely on how federal and local authorities use their “discretion,” and how communities respond to this vague and reversible directive. La Mala notes, “There is no guarantee of work permits,” which means that one key incentive for coming out of the shadows, the chance to work on the books like other Americans, remains elusive, especially in a depressed economic landscape rife with discrimination.
Rosario Quiroz drops some realistic optimism at Huffington Post:
This seems like little more than a political ploy by a president seeking reelection who’s faced increasing pressure from undocumented youth to do something, pressure which ultimately resulted in various of his campaign offices shutting down after they were occupied by undocumented activists who resolved not to leave unless an executive order were to be issued or they were arrested. These pressures in a sense forced Obama to do the right thing. And for that I’m touched… But I cannot say that the president has regained my trust, or that this announcement has sparked hope. Buckling under pressure is not a sign of strength. What has sparked hope and garnered my unconditional support and confidence is the work of undocumented youth the country over who have dropped the fear and claimed their value, giving a megaphonic voice where before there was an eerie silence gripping the undocumented community.
Fellow DREAMer Orin Abel reflects on the perils of piecemeal reform, noting that the memo covers only a small slice of a massive and complex undocumented population.
I know the feeling of standing in the margins and watching others obtain an opportunity, while you are being denied. To this end, I am conflicted for my relatives, my friends and the millions who are not covered by this policy. And all the while, I kept thinking about the countless others lost in the process. Perhaps it is premature to have such thoughts in response to such a temporary fix. Still, the hope that it provides, forces me to think of those in heavy soles, who have to remain out of the light, quiet, disenfranchised, frustrated, pressured and ever uncertain. For them, this may well be renewed disappointment.
Even if the Obama administration’s order does do all it promises on paper, it remains just that, words on paper–a two-dimensional fix for a multi-dimensional crisis, one that intersects with questions of race, culture, ideology and economic inequality. And it will fail to make immigrant youth whole if it leaves their loved ones still suffering in fear and silence.
That kind of crisis requires more than a presidential order, or even a piece of legislation. It demands a mass movement. And in the communities who know the pain of separation, disenfranchisement and stunted dreams, the grassroots response began long before Obama’s speech. And it will continue tomorrow, when undocumented youth wake up to a slightly changed, but largely stagnant political landscape–and then face a country waiting for a people’s movement to truly shift the ground.
Whatever you think about Obama’s promises, you can show your support for undocumented youth by signing onto our pledge for Julio and other immigrants seeking justice.