Obama Immigration Policy: DREAM Act Faces the Meat Grinder of Politics

On Friday, the Obama administration announced its decision to allow as many as 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. Setting out criterion pursuant to the President's executive powers, the Department of Homeland Security memo signals a policy change and strikes a necessary procedural balance.

Though the policy announcement met with much praise, it slammed headlong into party politics and is equaled only by criticism and outrage. But time has come for an administration to be progressive about reexamining the longstanding policies that literally throw the babies out with the bathwater. In effect, the Obama Administration has attempted to both rip the ineffective bandage off the immigration wound and administer first aid.

U.S.' immigration policy has long been a quagmire of difficulty, incongruity, and contradiction. Add to this the current climate of fear, uncertainty, and a creeping ignorance of both our history and present role in an ever-globalizing society, and the quagmire has only grown.

Approximately one third of our foreign-born population is illegal immigrants. Though over half hail from Mexico and other Latin American countries, these countries' yearly influx has declined sharply while the presence of illegal immigrants from Asia, India, Europe, and Canada has increased. 

Present immigration policy has been characterized by Obama's notoriously aggressive immigration enforcement, infamy bested perhaps only by our Congress' uncompromising partisan gridlock. The administration's announcement is a nod to the lives of undocumented minors outside of the political vacuum, and a welcome acknowledgement that the hammer of our immigration priorities can no longer be applied without regard to context or circumstance. 

On all sides, there are reasons for anxiety about illegal immigration—some actual, others more abstract. With capitalism the prevailing strain in our mixed economic model, many industries implicitly and explicitly exploit the availability of illegal labor. This not only gouges wage earnings and affects state and local treasuries, but combined with illegal immigrants' lack of legal status, has created a precarious state of human rights. Anxieties about immigration also seep from social uncertainties, economic precariousness, and fears of national irrelevance or decline. Such sentiments and realities are omnipresent.

When Obama assumed office in 2008, he proposed a two-fold plan to address immigration. To entice hard-line pragmatists into conceding on broader reform, he increased enforcement of immigration laws—intensifying border protections, curbing employers of the undocumented, and redoubling criminal deportations.  

Under these efforts, relative illegal immigration declined for the first time in decades. Obama then tried to pass a compromise measure—the reintroduced DREAM Act—that would have offered legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children if they had avoided legal trouble, achieved a certain level of education, or served in our military. After passing in the House, the Act died in the Senate, five votes short of the 60-vote threshold.

Friday’s new DHS guidelines offer no free pass. They are measured and calculated directives that respond to both a reality and a Constitutional command handed down by the Supreme Court in  Plyer v. Doe. The 1972 case prevented states from discriminating against school-age children in public education based on legal status—"a legal characteristic over which [they] have little control.” The guidelines give "no substantive right, immigration status, or pathway to citizenship" and leave Congress with the legislative latitude to confer or deny these rights. While doing so, the guidelines have also raised the right question: "If we raise and educate undocumented children in our communities and schools, why deny them the opportunity to return what they've been given?" 

The administration's policy shift is a temporary allowance, neither an offer of  immunity from immigration proceedings nor a guarantee of future advantage over American citizens. The critical requirement is that applicants must demonstrate merit. This requirement removes the policy change from accusations of arbitrariness and aligns it with the long-valued notion of furthering the contributing aims of those befitting from and woven into the American fabric. Most importantly, with regard to merit, the move asks federal authorities to exercise more holistic, individually based discretion. The reprioritization does not remove the discretion of the several immigration authorities to take punitive action in accordance with existing immigration policy. 

It is undeniable that the U.S. has been and is built upon the back immigration's legacy. Since the 1900s, illegal immigration has far outpaced legal immigration, and we have prospered overall from the efforts of both. The nativist "us and them,” “theirs and ours" rhetoric only makes sense if we turn a blind eye to the facts of our history—nativism only rightly belonging to those we have pushed into the poverty and inequity of reservation life.

As a nation built on the notion of opportunity, it is uncertain when or how we became comfortable justifying the dreams of America's early opportunists and not of the dreams of the new. The world has become too fluid, globalization too present for our mantra to become, "Sorry, but your lot has come too late." 

Respect for our rule of law demands that we hold adults who have intentionally violated our laws accountable for illegal immigration crimes. For the sake of stricture and drawing bright lines, this is necessary. But the youth to whom this directive applies exist in a gray area, bound by a status not of their own design and a legal framework that allows them to be "otherwise American." Is Obama’s policy change a perfect solution? No—but it is an attempt to break middle ground. Pushing the cynical speculations aside, let us focus more on the possibilities and less on the partisan pomp.