The Administration’s Deferred Action Policy: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

For the open borders advocate in the United States, policy changes which modestly expand the opportunity for more people to live and work legally in the U.S. create ambivalence. The beneficiaries of the changes gain access to the American job market and can live without the fear of deportation. At the same time, the limitations of the new policies highlight the plight of those still excluded from freely entering or staying in the U.S. The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows some undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the U.S., is a stark example of such a policy change.

The administration’s action certainly helps a sympathetic group of immigrants. Since August 2012, many undocumented individuals 30 years old or younger who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 have been eligible to receive deferred action, which allows them to stay in the U.S. and receive work permits for two years. Individuals have to have been in the U.S. for five years or more, have generally clean criminal records, and be in school, have graduated from high school, or be military veterans. The two year period is renewable. According to the National Immigration Law Center, over one hundred thousand immigrants have received deferred action under DACA, as of December 13, 2012. It is estimated that over 1.5 million immigrants could benefit from the administration’s action. These individuals could lead happier lives with unlimited work opportunities, access to driver’s licenses, and the chance to live without the fear of imminent deportation.

There are several reasons to be concerned about DACA, however. First, there are significant weaknesses in the policy itself. By applying for deferred action, undocumented immigrants are making the government aware of their immigration status, making them vulnerable to future deportation. According to a document produced by several legal groups, “Attorneys are advised to warn their clients in writing that even for prima facie eligible cases, deferred action is not guaranteed. The warning should further explain that applicants will be revealing and, in most cases, documenting their removability to a government agency that can initiate removal proceedings.” A future administration that is opposed to the policy could quickly rescind it. Underscoring the temporary nature of deferred action, the legal groups’ document states that “DHS can renew or terminate a grant of deferred action at any time.”

Second, some of the rhetoric by supporters of DACA suggests that the parents of the young immigrants are to blame for the perilous immigration status of their offspring. In announcing the new policy, Mr. Obama suggested these younger immigrants should not be deported “simply because of the actions of their parents.” (transcript of speech) This is reminiscent of comments made by those who want tighter immigration policies which blame undocumented immigrants for any suffering their children experience from immigration enforcement actions. As reported in the New York Times, Rosemary Jenks, from the restrictionist group NumbersUSA, “said the responsibility for the impact on children of the deportations rests with their parents. ‘If parents are going to come here illegally, unfortunately the child faces the consequences as well…’”

Such remarks by DACA supporters communicate the wrong message to the public about what has caused the young immigrants’ predicament. The threat of deportation for these immigrants ultimately stems from immigration restrictions, not from any fault of the parents. By bringing their children to the U.S. to improve their lives, the parents have shown great dedication toward them. Seeking a quality education, safety, and economic well-being for one’s children is the epitome of being a responsible parent. Conversely, keeping your children in a country that is unsafe, has weak schooling, and/or offers limited economic opportunities in deference to U.S. immigration laws could be considered poor parenting. The rhetoric also implies a dubious distinction between “worthy” immigrant sons and daughters who deserve protection and “unworthy” immigrant parents who do not. (The credit for this criticism of dividing immigrants into worthy and unworthy groups goes to the organization No One Is Illegal.)

Third, DACA protects only a small portion of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Most of the millions of undocumented individuals in the U.S. do not meet the criteria to apply for deferred action. This has been illustrated in recent cases reported in the media. In one, a Mexican woman and her daughter won money at an Arizona casino, but after the casino called the police when they thought their identification was fraudulent, the government learned that the two were undocumented. They were both arrested, but while the daughter was released because she qualified for DACA, the mother was deported because she did not qualify. In another Arizona case, a woman who had been granted deferred action status under DACA watched as her mother and brother were arrested by immigration agents at their home. The mother and brother were released the next day, apparently only because of pressure on the Obama administration, but still face the possibility of deportation. The pressure existed because the woman who had benefitted from DACA was a well-known advocate for young undocumented immigrants.

The policy is an example of the arbitrary and invariably unfair nature of immigration laws. For instance, it does not help immigrants who are 31 years old, who have only lived in the U.S. for four years and eight months, or who came to the U.S. when they were sixteen. It does not help those who did not complete high school, even though they may be upstanding members of their communities. No One Is Illegal has articulated nicely the inherent unfairness of having the government determine who may immigrate and who may not: “… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”

Similar problems will arise should the DREAM Act or “comprehensive immigration reform” be enacted.  The only way to permanently fulfill the hopes and dreams of all immigrants is to regularize the status of current migrants and move towards open borders for prospective future migrants, possibly incorporating some of the keyhole solutions to address restrictionist concerns.  Not only will all immigrants gain when these changes are made, America will have instituted a just immigration policy it can be proud of.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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