Heavier than the books Mariano Cardoso had to carry to class at Capital Community College in Hartford, Conn., was the weight of the deportation order he lived with for nearly three years. Recently, the 23-year-old not only graduated with an associate degree in liberal arts, but he had the order of removal lifted thanks to a hard-fought, high-profile campaign.
“I feel finally free because I had always had that on my mind — that at any time I could be deported. And [carrying] that idea around … really restricted me [from] focusing on whatever I wanted to do,” says the Mexican immigrant whose family brought him to the United States when he was 22 months old.
With the help of his community; Connecticut Gov. Daniel P. Malloy; U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and a lengthy petition, Cardoso had the deportation order halted. He says the process shouldn’t be this arduous for students like him — dubbed DREAMers — who would be eligible for the DREAM Act if it passed.
The DREAM Act would grant undocumented immigrants who were 16 years old or younger when they came to the United States a path to legal status and, eventually, citizenship if they enroll in college or the military. Despite support from President Barack Obama, the bill has languished in Congress for a decade.
Adam Luna, political director for the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, says outcomes like Cardoso’s should be the norm, not a rare occurrence.
“What advocates are saying is, ‘Why can’t you do that for most people,’” he says.
GOP gains in Congress in 2010 dashed the DREAM Act’s hopes for passage yet again, but Act advocates have been drumming up support for alternative measures to keep undocumented students in the country. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and 21 other senators expressed support for alternative measures in an April 13 letter to Obama, noting that Obama can grant “deferred action” for the deportation of DREAMers.
A month earlier, Obama had denied that he has that power. However, representatives from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Council, the Center for American Progress and former Immigration and Naturalization Services officials also issued a memorandum on April 29 observing that, as the head of the executive branch, Obama can “exercise discretion in deciding what cases to investigate and prosecute.”
“Yes, Congress makes the laws, and only a change in the law can change the status of these students,” says Luna, “but the president is in charge of how to implement the law,” the letter stated.
Still, the legal argument for an executive order to shield DREAMers from deportation is murky. Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, agrees with Obama that a president does not have the constitutional power to essentially overrule a law. “This would clearly cross the line,” he says.
What is clear, however, is that the number of deportations is on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, last year there were 393,000 deportations, up from 359,000 the previous year. It was the seventh consecutive record high. In addition, under the Obama administration the number of deportation deferrals has hit a record low, says Luna.
About 2.1 million undocumented youth would be eligible for the DREAM Act, according to a 2010 study by the Migration Policy Institute. The senators add that canceling the deportation of DREAM Act students conserves DHS resources, helping the department go after undocumented criminals. While it’s clear that DHS’s priority is criminals, Obama can put some specificity behind that policy, says Luna, noting that immigrants can be dubbed “criminal aliens” simply by getting a traffic ticket.
Inconsistency in the System
Prerna Lal, founder of the immigration reform group DreamActivist and a law student at George Washington University, says each deportation case is different. It could take a month, six months or years to get deported.
The senators also noted the discrepancy in treatment. “Currently, there is no formal process for applying for deferred action, and many DREAM Act students are unaware of this option,” the letter says, adding that former president George W. Bush’s administration recommended establishing guidelines for deferred action.
Cardoso would not have known about the option for deferred action had it not been for immigration reform groups in his community. “They are the ones that initiated that,” he says. “I wanted to just make everyone aware, even if something was to happen to me.”
Mounting a large public campaign is the only way to help students escape a deportation order, says Luna. For Cardoso, it all started in August 2008 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials marched into a family gathering in his uncle’s backyard. The agents were looking for a drug dealer in the neighborhood but detained the men in the Cardoso family when his uncle refused to let them search the house.
“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “I’ve been here for 21 years, and I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Cardoso’s lawyer bought him time by postponing the court date, hoping that the DREAM Act would pass in the interim. But it didn’t. It failed in the Senate last December after a Republican filibuster.
“Every deportation case — and I’ve worked on about a dozen of these [as a policy advocate] — takes a lot of work,” says Lal. “It’s from getting paperwork, to petition signatures from the community, to going to a representative’s office and asking them to ask ICE for protection.”
Flagging DREAM Act-eligible deportees earlier and granting them deferred action would save resources, the senators say in the letter. “Under current practice, DHS typically will not grant deferred action in a DREAM Act case until an individual receives a final order of deportation and frequently not until days or hours before the removal date,” the letter states.
Having his deportation order removed earlier would have saved Cardoso a lot of heartache. “I sometimes felt like it was too much,” he says of going to school and coping with the ever-present possibility of deportation.
While granting DREAM Act deportees deferred action earlier is better than nothing, says Lal, the best remedy is giving them temporary protective status, or TPS. However, Obama said in March that TPS is reserved for emergency situations, such as when he granted Haitian immigrants TPS after last January’s earthquake.
Obama’s inaction on the issue is not without risk, says Luna. If he does not make a bold move soon, Luna claims Obama might lose the support of immigrant voters in critical Southwest states and Florida. Students like Cardoso are raising the level of awareness on this issue. “They are poised to be big voices in the Latino community,” Luna says.
Cardoso says he felt alone when he was hit with the deportation order, but, when he saw his community stand up for him, it gave him the drive to move forward. “What has inspired me all these months is that there are people taking the initiative — not only undocumented students but also allies,” he says.
In the 2008 presidential race, 67 percent of Latino voters sided with Obama, according to exit polls. Many political analysts have suggested that, while Latino voters are unlikely to turn out for a Republican, they might choose to sit out the 2012 election, dissatisfied with all options. Dr. Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at the University of Washington, notes that only 41 percent of Latino registered voters say they are certain to vote for Obama in 2012. Just as Reid, a Democrat, held on to his seat by making a final push with Latino voters through support of the DREAM Act, Obama has a great opportunity to keep Latino voters engaged, says Luna.
Cardoso is optimistic that political pressure will nudge Obama to help other DREAMers. “I’m very hopeful because a year ago you didn’t see all these organizations standing up and making it known that we’re here,” he says.
Now that Cardoso has graduated, he plans on continuing to take community college classes and applying to Central Connecticut University. Still, he will have to deal with living as an undocumented student.
“It’s frustrating to see these restrictions on me when the only thing I want to do is be a civil engineer,” he says.