Thursday, August 16, 2012

El nuevo día: Immigration reform in America

ITS OFFICIAL name is "Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," and while the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “the Dream Act,” its ill-fated legislative antecedent, it’s a social advancement by executive order, one that brings undocumented immigrants up from the shadows. For them it might as well be called the Esperanza Act — “esperanza” being the Spanish word for “hope.”

On Wednesday, the program President Obama announced in June went into effect, enabling maybe up to 1.7 million young undocumenteds, most from Mexico and Central America, to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation for the next two years.

“Childhood arrivals who meet the guidelines and whose cases are deferred will now be able to live without fear of removal, and be able to more fully contribute their talents to our great nation,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a Wednesday statement.

Opportunity will have its cost. To be eligible for the program, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16 years old, they must be no older than 30, have been living in the U.S. at least five years and are in school or graduated, or served in the military. They can’t have a criminal record, and they must pay a $465 application fee, which pays for the program’s costs, including a biometric check and the issuance of a secure work-authorization document.

Despite these procedural hurdles, a big response is expected. The Associated Press, borrowing from internal Department of Homeland Security documents, estimated that more than 1 million people would apply in the first year. The Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center have estimated as many as 1.7 million people may be eligible.

What it means for those who enroll is obvious; what it means for the country could be just as resonant.

“They are good for America,” writes Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a D.C.-based immigrant advocacy organization. “We are at our best when we encourage and reward hard work, not question it. We are at our strongest when we lift aspirations, not when we stifle them. We also must treat this positive step as an initial accomplishment, not a final one,” Noorani wrote Wednesday in a CNN Opinion piece.

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In the current hypercharged political climate, it’s no surprise that not everyone agrees. Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said on Tuesday: “While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants.”

“He's basically taking a very significant issue that needs to be solved in a long-term way that's measured, reasonable and balanced and deciding by edict, by fiat basically, to solve it in the short term, which happens to coincide with the November election,” Florida. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told NPR back in June.

"After three-and-a-half years of putting every issue from loan guarantees to his donors to Cash For Clunkers, putting all those things before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on Day One, but didn't. I think you deserve better," said Mitt Romney, the beleaguered Republican presumed nominee for the presidency, in June.

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PARTISANSHIP aside, Romney’s comments do raise a legitimate question, one being asked on either side of the political divide: What took the president so long? By virtue of the program’s genesis by executive order, that presidential privilege that bypasses the gridlock of congressional approval, Obama could have made this move literally years ago.

Maybe you can attribute it to the other pressing concerns crossing the Resolute desk in the Oval Office over the previous three-odd years; or maybe it’s the consequence of the president’s trademark deliberate deliberateness. Whatever the catalyst, with Latino voters very much in play, its timing in this year’s campaign can hardly be an accident.

There’s some concern about the cost of the application; for most Americans, $465 isn’t a king’s ransom but it’s sure enough money to miss. For working-class immigrants fighting for a toehold in the United States, that’s inescapable.

And what about the applicants that aren’t approved? Do they go back into existential limbo? Will immigration authorities go after them for deportation in two years? How will the information gathered in the forms be used against their families? And if Romney wins in November, what happens to the program then? An initiative started by executive order can be overturned the same way.

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This is a beginning. It’s a given that President Obama hopes to realize a benefit with Latino voters in November from this action — one that builds on the solid lead he has over Romney among Latino voters already. In a May NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll of Latino voters, Obama led Romney 61 percent to 27 percent.

But never mind the bureaucratic hurdles (which make this program as American an experience as they come) and the political advantage. What makes this program such a breakthrough, albeit a temporary one, is its reach beyond the politics of the moment in order to make a defining statement about America and what it is to be an American.

President Obama has recalibrated the immigration debate, moving it from perpetual stasis in Congress to action in the cities and towns of this country, in the hearts and minds of people whose patriotism is less about a fragile piece of paper than it is about an enduring fact of their identity.

Image credits: Maryland immigration rally: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press. Deferred Action form detail: CNN. Students in Los Angeles: Reuters.

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