President Barack Obama announced plans June 15 to begin what some immigrant activists and critics have called the most substantial immigration policy change in the United States to date.
Since Aug. 15, applications are being accepted for the new program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which could potentially benefit as many as 1.7 million people living in the U.S. and 400,000 people in California.
The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) has begun reviewing applications that could potentially grant young undocumented immigrants a work permit and a two-year reprieve from deportation.
Given the criticism of immigration reform, there are several measures in place to ensure that the program is available only to individuals who qualify as “hardworking.”
Candidates must meet certain criteria in order to qualify, including being under 31 years old as of June 15 and having a spotless criminal record. They also must have lived in the United States before their 15th birthday.
In order to be eligible for the program, candidates must have obtained a high school diploma or GED equivalent, be enrolled in school, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces, said Don Lyster, the Washington, D.C. director of the National Immigration Law Center in a speech.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can automatically disqualify anyone they deem a threat to the nation. Though definitions and other formalities are still pending, they will likely include gang membership and participation in criminal activities as national security threats.
“Every DREAMer should talk to an experienced immigration attorney before requesting deferred action, especially if they have ever been arrested, left the country, or been in contact with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” Lyster said.
The program is primarily aimed towards ensuring that young immigrants have an opportunity to succeed. It will allow for a more affordable chance at extended education and employment opportunities.
The DACA has been linked to the DREAM Act due to its similar eligibility standards. The DREAM Act has failed to pass in Congress since its inception in 2001. Had it passed, it would have offered a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, often called “DREAMers.”
According to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the difference is that the deferred action policy does not grant a path to citizenship, as the DREAM Act would and it does not discuss any kind of permanent legal status.
The fact that DACA and DREAM are so similar has caused many DREAMers to react to the new program with both delight and apprehension. In applying for deferred action, young immigrants who were not on the government’s radar would essentially open themselves up for investigation.
The possible repercussions associated with applying for deferred action have many wondering what should happen if their applications are rejected. Despite feelings of security some have in this nation, there is a fear of deportation for the applicants and their families.
Legal protection for illegal immigrants provided from the DHS is unsettling by nature, given that they are the authority on immigration, Boxer said.
A spokeswoman for United We Dream network said that people should not be worried about this at all.
“All of the information that is processed will be kept private. You will not be turned over to immigration enforcement authorities unless the DHS decides that you are a threat to national security or have committed fraud on your application,” she said.
Given the narrow scope of the program, many critics are left wondering about the applicant’s fate once their two-year reprieves have expired.
“Given the upcoming elections in November, it is difficult to say what direction the immigration reforms will go,” said Jessica Zuckerman, an immigration research associate at the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.
Zuckerman claimed that the DACA is a way to implement portions of the already Congress-rejected DREAM Act and that President Obama, by pushing this legislation, is simply playing politics instead of creating a real solution.
“Rather than unite the nation with solutions to an important national problem, President Obama chose (to) undercut the legislative process and abuse the latitude the President has under existing law in an attempt to effectively implement large portions of the DREAM Act legislation that has been considered and rejected by both Democrat and Republican-controlled Congresses,” she said.
According to Lyster, the only thing that is certain is that the applicants, who are approved by the DHS, will not be targeted should Obama leave office. The plan is to have them re-apply for the work permits and reprieve once the two years are over.
Many see the promise of temporary protection from deportation as a first step toward genuine immigration reform.
“It is not a permanent fixture, but it is a step in the right direction,” Boxer said. “The goal is to have successful, hardworking people come out of the shadows, without fear of deportation. They will now be able to contribute to the country they love.”