On Wednesday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service will begin accepting applications for “deferred action” — two-year relief from deportation — for otherwise-law-abiding immigrants under 31 who were brought to this country as children. This controversial measure was announced by President Barack Obama on June 15 after repeated efforts to pass the Dream Act were defeated by Senate filibuster — despite overwhelming bipartisan support in both Houses.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Vargas’ announcement last year that he was an “illegal alien” surprised most of us. How could he have lived and worked as a well-known journalist for so many years undetected?
Mr. Vargas was brought to the United States by his grandparents when he was 12. He did not realize he was “illegal” until he applied for a driver’s license years later.
His announcement in The New York Times sparked a heated debate on the contribution of illegal aliens to American society and the plight of the young “dreamers.” Perhaps his announcement did what 10 years of efforts to pass the Dream Act could not — it put pressure on the White House to take action when Congress failed to do so.
Critics were vocal: Can the president do this? Isn’t this amnesty? Aren’t we encouraging further violations of the law? But the measure was applauded by most Americans. Perhaps it was their sense of fair play, or compassion for the more than 800,000 young people who have been living in the shadows of the only society they have ever known.
Most young immigrants are hardworking, law-abiding individuals who grew up going to school, working and serving honorably in our military. They are our friends and neighbors — we probably don’t even know they are here without “documents.”
Carlos D’Souza will benefit from the president’s order. He was brought here by his father when he was 10. They crossed the border into Texas, after giving their life savings to a smuggler. They had hoped to work and save enough to send money to sick family members back home. But when they arrived, they didn’t have enough to pay their Texan handlers. They were sold into slavery to the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Arizona. Carlos and his dad washed dishes, mopped floors and cleared tables without pay for a year to settle their debt.
The president’s decision was based on sound economics and the principle of “prosecutorial discretion” — in addition to fairness and compassion. The government just does not have the $285 billion it would cost to deport the 11 million illegal aliens present in our country. Aren’t our limited resources better spent deporting criminal aliens instead of punishing youngsters for the acts of their parents? Is forcing young people to leave the only life they have never known for the country of their birth really worth the $12,500 to $23,500 it costs taxpayers per individual deported? Instead, under this measure, applicants will pay $465 to apply, generating millions of dollars in revenue.
There are many things this order does not do. It does not grant legal status. Applicants do not get a green card or citizenship. They can apply for authorization to work legally and pay taxes — but only for two years.
So why all the hoopla? The measure is a narrow exercise of prosecutorial discretion, which is deeply entrenched in our legal system, not a law.
Even the broad-based amnesty program launched by President Ronald Reagan under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 resulted in a decrease rather than an increase in border crossings, because it was wisely combined with stepped-up border security and employer penalties, something the Obama administration also has focused on. That law was premised on the fact that it is too costly and administratively difficult to round up and deport individuals who came here to work and support their families. Many had no means to do so in their own country.
Those who believe President Obama is soft on illegal immigration should look at the numbers: He has deported almost 400,000 illegal aliens annually, most of them with criminal records. This is double the number deported under the George W. Bush administration.
During the last few years, with jobs hard to find, the number of illegal aliens entering the United States also has dropped dramatically. Raids on employers of illegals have increased.
Who qualifies for “deferred action?” Those who, among other things, have committed no serious crimes, arrived in the United States when they were under 16; had continuously resided here for at least five years prior to June 15 and are in school, have graduated from high school, have a GED or have an honorable discharge from the armed forces.
With this one action, the president has brought hope not only to the “dreamers” but to millions of Americans who believe a child should not be punished for the wrongdoing of his parents, who believe almost a million people who have lived here most of their lives should be able to come out of the woodwork, work legally, pay taxes and live without fear in the only home they have ever known.