A recently issued immigration directive from the Obama administration could pave the way for more undocumented students to stay in the United States but falls short of the much-discussed DREAM Act offering such youth a pathway to citizenship, experts say.
“This is a very small down payment on the DREAM Act,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “And the DREAM Act is a small down payment on comprehensive immigration reform,” he told Diverse.
The administration in late August said it would no longer focus on undocumented students and other low-priority immigration offenders for deportation, instead choosing to focus primarily on those with criminal records. Undocumented students are largely K-12 and college students who illegally came into the U.S. as children with their parents.
Across the political spectrum, immigration and anti-immigration forces are taking widely different views of the new directive, with immigration reform groups calling it a welcome but modest step. While the directive is “long overdue,” Flores said, it does not mean the government is adopting the DREAM Act, short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
Under the DREAM plan, undocumented young adults would have a path to citizenship if they came to the U.S. as minors, have lived in the country for five years and have completed two years of college or military service and be of “good moral character.” First proposed a decade ago, the DREAM Act has yet to clear Congress despite support from many education groups and the Obama administration.
The House of Representatives in 2010 narrowly approved the bill. It also got a majority vote in the Senate but fell short of the ‘super majority’ of 60 votes needed to break a filibuster on the legislation in that chamber.
While the directive does not address the DREAM Act, it does send a signal that the federal government is setting priorities for enforcement — a process that helps law-abiding youth. “Focusing on the greatest threats is just plain common sense when it comes to law enforcement,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.
But critics describe the president’s actions as a sweeping, potentially damaging change opposed by the general public.
“It amounts to administrative amnesty,” Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, told Diverse.
“Every law enforcement agency in the world sets priorities, but they don’t announce it to the public,” Mehlman said. “This administration has just surrendered the general enforcement duty for 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants.”
He said the directive also violates the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, as the president opted to make significant changes without congressional approval.
“The executive branch has some discretion in making decisions. But this goes well beyond reasonable discretion,” according to Mehlman. “It’s simply usurping congressional policy. If Congress doesn’t pass something, the White House just acts on its own.”
Flores said colleges probably will await further details from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice before making any changes to current policies. He told Diverse the key issue is whether law-abiding, undocumented students — now identified as a low priority for deportation — can gain a clear path to a work permit and legal status.
“We still need to see the operational application of this decision,” he said. “Can Dreamers [those covered by the DREAM Act] get a work permit? If they are still in limbo, government is just delaying the problem.”
But the HACU president strongly rejected criticism that the new directive amounts to administrative amnesty.
“Amnesty is when you give a blanket pardon. That is not the case at all. It will be done on a case-by-case basis,” he said. States also may have varying definitions of what constitutes a minor criminal offense, Flores noted. But it does give hope to high-achieving youth seeking a college education.
The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice jointly announced the new policy on Aug. 18. Cecilia Munoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, wrote on the White House blog that “it makes no sense” to spend enforcement dollars on low-priority cases, including “young people who were brought to this country as small children and who know no other home.
“There are more than 10 million people who are in the U.S. illegally. It’s clear that we can’t deport such a large number.” She called the new directive “common sense guidelines” to identify top priorities. FAIR’s Mehlman noted, however, that congressional Republicans, particularly in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, may fight the directive. “The plan is now in Congress’ court,” he said.