On June 15, President Barack Obama announced from the White House Rose Garden a new immigration policy that may affect the lives of thousands of students. He said, “Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.” The work authorization lasts for two years and is available to “eligible individuals,” including those who:
- came to the United States before their 16th birthday.
- have not yet reached 30 years of age.
- have lived in the country continuously for at least five years before the June 15 announcement.
- are enrolled in school, are high school graduates, or have been honorably discharged from the military.
In support of this policy, Obama argued that “it makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians.”
How Will This Policy Affect College Students?
This plan is a response to Congress’s resistance to the DREAM Act. While not exactly a permanent measure, Obama’s decision does grant at least temporary relief to thousands of students facing imminent deportation. For these students, brought here by their parents when they were children, deportation would mean the end of their education. Many of whom have done their best to work hard, attend school, and contribute to society. This new measure helps them continue their education in the land they know as home. In addition, not all who fit this category will be eligible; those who cannot take advantage of the immigration initiative include those with “significant misdemeanors” on their records.
However, some have argued that the new regulation is somewhat vague on how it will affect students. University of Georgia professor Betina Kaplan said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the measure is “talking about deferral of the process of deportation. It’s talking about working permits. But it’s not saying anything about education.” This is especially relevant in Kaplan’s home state, Georgia, which bans all illegal immigrants from attending five of its public colleges and universities, including the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship institution. Kaplan argued, “I don’t see any element that would put pressure on the schools in Georgia to lift the ban, but I think we have to wait and see.”
On The Huffington Post, Joseph Nevins makes an even stronger point about the new regulations. He argues that the joy with which the announcement was received by immigrants across the country “should not cloud our collective ability to see the serious limits to Obama’s policy change nor, more importantly, dilute energies pushing for more far-ranging changes of a fundamentally unjust system.” For example, Nevins points out that the age limits will exclude more than they help, and the “significant misdemeanors” that will prevent someone for applying for the deportation deferment are not specified and are therefore open to wildly differing interpretations that can create inequality. Finally, Nevins argues, the initiative does not include any sort of specified formal adjudication and appeal process. He argues that when it comes to the larger issue of immigration reform, “what happens to successful applicants at the end of two years is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that the policy does not allow a pathway to legal permanent residency and citizenship.”
Weird – But More Common Than You Think – Situations
The most high profile case involving a student facing deportation is that of Daniela Pelaez, a high school valedictorian in North Miami, Fla. who was granted an extension of her deportation process following massive public demonstrations. Despite being a critic of President Obama’s recent action, even Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida admitted a few days ago that “it feels weird to deport a valedictorian who has been here since they were four years old and have done well in school.”
I know how he feels. Last semester one of my students missed several classes because he had to meet with immigration officers who were trying to deport him to Brazil, a country that he did not even remember leaving, let alone living in. He arrived in the United States with his parents on a legal visa when he was five years old. He went to American public schools for his entire education, played sports for his high school, worked part-time and then full-time jobs to fund his community college courses, paid taxes (as did his parents), and was then told that he would have to “return” to a country he left 15 years before—a country that was a stranger to him.
He was being deported because his legal visa was about to expire, and immigration laws prevented its renewal. He was heartbroken, feared that if deported he would never be able to return to the country he thought of as his home, and did not know how he would complete his education. He fought back tears when he asked me why his own country would throw him out. He said, “I am an American. All of my education was here. I have always worked here. I barely even speak Portuguese!” He was raised as an American, and identified, proudly, as an American. I had no idea what to say to him, because it seemed very “weird” indeed (to borrow a word from Senator Rubio) that my country wanted to deport such a hard-working, intelligent, and patriotic young man.
For this student, and nearly a million others, the actions of President Obama address a difficult problem that does not fall into the simple “legal/illegal” immigrant debate that proliferates in the press. It is, as the President states, a stop-gap, a temporary fix to address one of the more pressing immigration problems in our country.
Though critics on the left argue that this is not enough, and critics on the right decry this as a threat to American jobs (as did a heckler who rudely interrupted the President’s actual live statement several times), for me as an educator, this is a moment that recognizes the complexity of immigration policy, and lives up to the American ideal of opportunity. We have not slammed the door shut on the many students who have been raised here as Americans, love this country, and work hard to achieve success not just for the good of themselves, but also for the nation. And that doesn’t feel weird at all. That feels like the right thing to do.