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Will Obama's 'Deferred Action' Policy Provide Legal Status to Immigrant Youth--or Put Them at Greater Risk?

Temporary relief from deportation could open the door to more exploitation of young immigrants, but it could also further embolden them to agitate in public for economic justice and human rights.


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

This week the White House rolled out its “Deferred Action” policy, cracking open the door to legal status for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants without papers. Many see the promise of temporary protection from deportation as a first step toward genuine immigration reform. But the future is unclear: What exactly in it for these these youth, when all they’re being offered is temporary protection?

The Obama administration's new policy,  aimed at pleasing the Latino electorate, initially  set off a flurry of celebration among immigrant youth activists who had long  pushed for the DREAM Act. But skepticism persists. Legal protection derived from a directive from the Department of Homeland Security is, by nature, tenuous. The fate of the program could depend on who is in the White House next year. And  unlike the DREAM Act, the Deferred Action policy allows people to work and study, but does not offer a direct path to long-term legalization.

On the other hand, Deferred Action offers some youth at least a modicum of security and could galvanize the broader movement to resist dysfunctional immigration policies.

Essentially, youth who came to the United States as children are now eligible for a two-year stay and a work permit,  if they meet various criteria, including: being 30 or younger, possessing a clean criminal record and having arrived before age 16.

The New York Times  described the anxious scene at a public gathering in Chicago where thousands gathered to ask about their legal options:

Maria Rodriguez, 19, who attends a community college in the Chicago suburbs, said she had been waiting since 1 a.m. in a line that eventually stretched the length of the pier. ...

“Finally, I can help pay for my school,” she said. “All my education is going to pay off now. I can actually get a job."

But that optimism may fade in the face of the bleak landscape that most young job seekers face today. Twenty-somethings are burdened by crippling student debt, an  anemic labor market and social policies that thwart upward mobility for the poor, people of color and women. In this climate, gaining work authorization won't mean immediate economic advancement for young immigrants; it won’t mean a living wage or a fair chance at an affordable college education; and it won’t really narrow  deep income disparities.

Those obstacles may impose hurdles to even joining the program, says Angy Rivera, an  undocumented activist with the New York State Youth Leadership Council. She notes that many underpaid or unemployed immigrant youth, already burdened by the general economic crisis, will "struggle to afford the basic application fees."

Ironically, baseless fears of immigrants “stealing” the jobs of “real Americans” has distorted the entire debate about immigrant youth in the labor force. In reality,  immigration tends to boost the economy overall. Besides, unemployment is a structural problem; it’s not about Malthusian competition so much as creating a more inclusive, humane economic system for all. That’s why, rather than simply deferring uncertainty, the White House’s ultimate goal should be to permanently end young immigrants'  legal limbo and give them a chance to live with dignity in the country where they’ve planted roots.

Adding to the financial costs of temporary, lopsided reprieve are the  logistical burdens and legal risks. Some youth could inadvertently  make themselves more legally vulnerable just by coming forward as undocumented. DHS vaguely claims that application information will not be shared with immigration enforcement agents. But the administration’s general approach to enforcement suggests that even a minor run-in with the authorities or a blemished record  could expose an undocumented immigrant to arbitrary  detention or deportation proceedings.

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