PHOENIX, Ariz. -- President Obama’s announcement Friday that he would halt deportations of undocumented youth and give them a work permit offered a sign of hope for students in Arizona, who are awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on SB 1070, a bill that criminalizes them.
“This is a very concrete step that will offer relief to undocumented youth,” said Daniel Rodriguez, an organizer from the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition (ADAC), which advocates in support of the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would offer qualifying undocumented students a path to legalization.
Rodríguez, 26, cautioned that the “devil is in the details.” And he warned that even as the announcement brings hope, it also creates a climate that could make people vulnerable to con artists who could try to take advantage of their trust.
Rodríguez warned a group of young people who gathered in Phoenix to hear the president’s speech to beware of anyone who offered services in connection with this new policy.
“Our community needs to be ready,” he said. “Don’t let yourself or your family be victims of fraud.”
Obama’s new policy -- which bypasses Congress -- would benefit students who can prove they came to the country before the age of 16 and are not older than 30. They must have graduated from high school or have a GED.
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are Americans," Obama said. "They have been raised as Americans, understand themselves to be part of this country.”
While this change won’t grant access to citizenship to these young people, many see it as a positive step forward.
“Now we need to focus on working on our parents, who also need relief,” said Dulce Matuz, another member of ADAC in Arizona, who was recently declared one of the 100 most influential people by TIME Magazine for her activist work.
Matuz, 27, heard the news just as she and other undocumented youth were protesting outside an immigration detention center in Los Angeles, where several undocumented youth were being held for deportation.
She said she hoped the Obama administration would keep its promise, unlike the June 2011 memo to use prosecutorial discretion in order to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants with ties to the community and no criminal record. The memo has served as a guideline, but critics say it has not been implemented adequately in practice as a policy change, and that prosecutorial discretion in itself is difficult to oversee or review.
“I hope this is different,” Matuz said.
The shift in policy announced Friday represents the most significant step taken related to immigration policy in the country over the last decade. It is also a first victory for the DREAMers, the activist youth who have been pushing for passage of the DREAM Act.
“There’s no doubt that this administration has turned a page and it’s willing to write the next chapter of the immigration debate,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress. “At the end of the day, Congress needs to stop hiding behind its desk,” she said.
Kelley participated in a teleconference with journalist José Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines who come out publicly about his immigration status in an article in The New York Times last year.
Vargas appeared with at least 30 undocumented youth on the cover of TIME Magazine Thursday, just one day before the president’s announcement.
“Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. I was one of them,” said Vargas. “Now those 65,000 students that graduate from high school are going to start to ‘dream.’”
Republican Governor Jan Brewer held a press conference immediately after the president’s announcement.
“This was an outrageous announcement ... that intends to grant back-door amnesty,” Brewer said. “It doesn't take a cynic to recognize this action for what it is, blatant political pandering. Likewise, it’s no coincidence all of this comes on the eve of a long-awaited decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding Arizona’s ability to assist with the enforcement of immigration law via SB 1070. The American people are smarter than this,” she said.
In 2010, Brewer signed into law SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial state immigration law that was the first to make it a state crime to be undocumented. Since then, similar laws have been enacted in five other states. When a federal court blocked key parts of Arizona’s law, Brewer appealed the decision, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court is expected to rule on the case in several days.
Obama’s policy change could provide relief from deportation to as many as 1.4 million non-citizens under the age of 30, according to estimates released Friday by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Migration Policy Institute.
The change would not grant permanent legal status or citizenship to young people, but would give them “deferred action,” a way to allow them continue their military service or begin their careers. The grant of deferred action will be issued on a case-by-case basis and is renewable every two years.
For students like Rodríguez this is only the beginning. All eyes in Arizona are now looking to the Supreme Court, which will rule on four parts of SB 1070 that are currently on hold.
Some legal observers expect the justices to reinstate the “Papers, please” portion of the law that will make it mandatory for police to ask for legal documents during routine stops.
“There’ll be more cases of people being pulled over for racial profiling so we should prepare for that,” said Rodríguez. “That is why we need this (new policy) and should continue to push the administration for a broader change.”