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Migrant Nation

New policy lets DREAM Act students work, avoid deportation

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Undocumented students across the country breathed a collective a sigh of relief Friday as the Obama administration announced an executive order to immigration officials to stop detaining and deporting DREAM Act-eligible immigrants while offering renewable two-year permits to legally work in the U.S.

Under the new fiat, which bypasses immigration hardliners in Congress like Texas GOP Rep. Lamar Smith, who quickly derided the policy as “amnesty” and a “breach of faith with the American people,” students and graduates who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed visas before they were 16 years old can avoid deportation and apply for work permits provided they're under 30, have a clean record, and have lived in the U.S. for five consecutive years.

Naturally, the political calculus involved and timing is hard to ignore. Working to drum up support from Latinos before November, Obama spilled the new policy just before his speech to the annual conference for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida this week. And while the policy removes the immediate threat of deportation for many, immigration lawyers and DREAM Activists offered cautious optimism this week saying the new mandate falls short of what's contained in the DREAM Act, the long-stalled immigration reform measure that would provide a pathway to citizenship for such undocumented immigrants.

“This is not amnesty, this is not the DREAM Act, this is not a path to citizenship,” said San Antonio immigration attorney Lance Curtright. “This is tremendously important, especially here in Texas, for all these young people who can't get a work permit, who can't get a drivers license, who can't really live normal lives,” he said. “I just hope it's the first step of an incremental approach to the reform that needs to take place.”

The new policy has powerful, immediate consequences for DREAMers who have been stuck in the shadows for years, nervously waiting in legal limbo — the Obama administration says the directive to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is effective immediately, though it should take 60 days to iron out the application process for so-called deferred action and work permits.

“A lot of people may say this was a political game, blah blah blah, all that other stuff,” said Carolina Canizales, an undocumented 22-year-old who graduated from UTSA this spring. “You know it might be, but it doesn't change how important this is to us,” she said. “Obama gave us something signed, something tangible, something we can work with.”

Canizales should know. Her mother brought her to the U.S. from Monterey, Mexico, 12 years ago. Canizales became sharply aware of her undocumented status when she tried to enroll in drivers' ed in high school. Without a social security number, she couldn't get a learner's permit and was turned away. Speaking by phone this week, while riding the bus through town, Canizales said she still doesn't have a car and doesn't really know how to drive. Up until now, she couldn't get a license even if she wanted to.

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