President Barack Obama made a bold move with his recent executive order, which directs U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to temporarily relax the deportation of thousands of young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Effective immediately, undocumented immigrants under 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 will be spared. Qualifying immigrants must have lived in the U.S. for the past five years, have no criminal record, and have a U.S. high school diploma, GED, or U.S. military service. They can also apply for two-year work permits, which are eligible for multiple renewals.
The initiative will benefit as many as 800,000 young immigrants. Among this number will be thousands of young Caribbean illegal immigrants, now freed from the cloud of deportation. As such, the president's announcement is a fitting gift to Caribbean migrants during this Caribbean-American Heritage month.
Not surprisingly, critics and political pundits argue that the president's order is more political than benevolent in a very competitive presidential campaign. The order's close timing to the November 2012 presidential elections could be considered as another suave political strategy. But, notwithstanding the political implications, the president action was defensible and much needed.
For almost a decade, the U.S. Congress has procrastinated over the key issue of immigration reform, leaving some 12 million undocumented immigrants in a state of limbo. There was a brief moment of hope during the George W. Bush administration, when comprehensive immigration reform, including the now controversial Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM), earned real bi-partisan support. Support ranged from former presidential candidate and Republican Senator John McCain, to late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
The DREAM act however, which offered young undocumented immigrant a path towards legal status through education, failed despite the support. Although a bill was actually passed in the then Democratic controlled House, it was defeated by Republican opposition in the Senate.
Meanwhile over one million young people, who may be valuable assets to America's labor force, live under the constant fear of deportation – a fear that often limits them from pursuing their full potential through education and employment. This new, temporary reprieve may allow this group of young minds an opportunity to truly contribute to the American economy in a regulated way.
Much work remains however to provide fair and humane immigration policies. Although the president's action should be applauded, it is by no means an ideal solution. The president's executive order serves mainly as a "stop-gap" measure – a makeshift bandage rather than permanent cure. Just to maintain these new work permits, young adults must reapply every two years. And, since the new procedure was enforced by presidential executive order, there is no guarantee that, if Obama loses the election, his successor won't choose to revoke.
Unfortunately, although Obama assured the nation during his 2008 presidential campaign that immigration reform would be a top priority, his legislative efforts were usurped by the equally politically combatant healthcare reform.
It is vital that immigration reform be a foremost priority for the incoming 2013 administration. One understands concern about the economic consequences of granting legal status to millions of new people. A phased-in policy however, which applies to special categories of undocumented immigrants with high-demand skills in Americas, would be an appropriate beginning.