A new hope for illegal immigrants

The Obama administration’s decision on August 18 to suspend the deportations of thousands of undocumented immigrants marked the most significant change to American immigration policy since 1986, when the Reagan administration extended amnesty to 3 million such immigrants. The first reprieves have since been issued. At a time when anti-immigration rhetoric has reached a level of hate not seen in decades, millions of undocumented people can now hope that if they have not committed any crimes, they may be permitted to stay in the United States indefinitely.

As Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated in a letter to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and 21 other senators, her department will focus on arresting and deporting immigrants who have criminal records, leaving unresolved the situations of other undocumented immigrants.

Over the years, thousands of immigrants who committed minor traffic violations or misdemeanors have been deported after being detained by the police. This should change under the new guidelines.

Cecilia Munoz, the White House’s director of intergovernmental affairs, told me that a traffic violation is not considered a “criminal high priority.” It is now less likely that an immigrant will be deported for forgetting to use his turn signal.

To clarify: This does not change the legal status of the estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But across the nation, many hardworking people are sleeping more easily, less fearful about being separated from their parents, spouses and children.

A new horizon

The new programme will likely benefit the ‘dreamers’ – that is, the more than 2 million young people brought to this country by undocumented parents. They have grown up in the United States and graduated from high school, and now they want to pursue university studies or join the armed forces. Since a child’s immigration status is based on his parents’, these young people have no avenue to apply for citizenship and cannot attend college. Napolitano’s letter urged the passage of the DREAM Act, which would create pathways to citizenship for those stuck in this situation.

In effect, the Obama administration’s suspension of deportations creates a new category of immigrants: nondeportable undocumented immigrants. These people cannot legally be hired for a job, but nor will they be forcibly returned to their country of origin.
President Obama has finally used his position to help immigrants. But it took him two and a half years to do so, and during that time, the damage to the immigrant communities has been grave.

The Department of Homeland Security has deported more than 1 million immigrants since Obama was sworn into office. His administration’s controversial Secure Communities program has, in fact, made our communities less secure by requiring policemen to act as immigration agents. The fingerprints of anyone booked into jail are now sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where agents decide whether or not to detain immigrants, based on whether they have criminal records, have been previously deported or have been told to leave the country. The announcement on Aug. 5 that this program will not only continue in the cities and states that already enforce it, but will also be implemented on a national level, isolates immigrants even more. They are now more likely to be victims of criminal acts because they don’t dare report crimes to the police, for fear of being arrested themselves.

But, as I said, it’s a start. Obama should have presented his plan for immigration reform when Democrats had the majority in both chambers of Congress, as he promised to do during his presidential campaign in 2008. But he didn’t.

Obama has gradually been losing Latinos’ support – polls show this very clearly – and it is evident it bothers him to be accused of not fulfilling his promise. Latino voters’ honeymoon with Obama is officially over. They have held small protests across the nation, pointing out that he has not kept his word – that he has torn families apart and deported more undocumented immigrants per year than any previous American president.

Whether or not this decision was politically motivated, it should help Obama to solidify his position with voters in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. No one can be elected or re-elected president without the Latino vote.

This pause in deportations is good news for millions of immigrants in the United States. It does not solve their legal problem, but leaves them in a sort of immigration limbo. And immigration limbo is certainly better than deportation hell.


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