Like many mornings, I start my day by drowsily checking my email on my phone so I don't have to get out of my cozy bed. This morning, I was met with an email from a friend saying that Obama had come out for administrative relief from deportation and work permits for undocumented youth and young adults. I was skeptical. They had probably just heard about one of the many actions pressing for this new policy-the Dream Team Los Angeles event this morning in Downtown Los Angeles or the National Immigrant Youth Alliance hunger strikes in Obama's campaign offices across the country. Turning to a reliable source of information I checked Facebook and learned it was true. In fact the Department of Homeland security had announced a new policy. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision which guaranteed undocumented youth access to public K-12 education. This historic decision was followed by other laws and policies which have provided undocumented youth and young adults with opportunities. In California, Assembly Bill 540 (2001) and the Assembly Bills 130 and 131 (2011) paved the way for access to higher education via in-state tuition rates and financial aid. Similar bills exist in other states.
This announcement follows in the path of these laws; they all provide a small step towards opportunities for undocumented youth. Guaranteed access to K-12 education, increased access and affordability of higher education, and now a work permit would offer the ability to put these educations to work.
In addition, protection from deportation provides freedom from the fear of repercussions of living their lives and speaking up for their rights. Over the past 5 years I have interviewed over 200 undocumented youth, young adults, and students for my work and participated in events and activities with hundreds more. Their stories are punctuated with alternating feelings of fear and empowerment, limitations and opportunities. Students speak of these positive educational policies saying that they changed their lives and gave them hope for the future. With today's announcement, I hope that I will be hearing such comments in the future about this new DHS policy.
I hear too many stories about undocumented college graduates working at fast food restaurants or in jobs where they don't have the opportunities to use their skills. Of being offered supervisor positions and having to turn them down. Of being taken advantage of at work- being told to do work that was not part of their jobs, not being paid what they earned, being harassed by bosses, coworkers and customers- and not doing anything out of fear of losing their jobs or being reported to immigration officials. Hopefully this new policy will serve as an opportunity for these youth and young adults to walk further down the path of opportunity and speak up for their rights.
However, after about 30 minutes of these happy, optimistic thoughts, I returned to reality and reminded myself that I needed to be cautiously optimistic. I and the undocumented young adults I work with have had our hearts broken too many times by proposed policies that don't have the effects that we expected. Case in point, the announcement by DHS a year ago that they would practice prosecutorial discretion with non-priority deportation cases. A few weeks ago a review of this new processes revealed that only 1.5% of cases are being closed. In addition, after more than 10 years we still have not passed the federal DREAM Act, let alone any form of comprehensive immigration reform that would include undocumented adults.
This newly announced policy, like all the positive laws and decisions that preceded it, are steps in the right direction; however, the path stops abruptly and short of the full reforms we need. While this is a welcome addition to the range of pro-immigrant policies, we are still waiting for full reforms that would help a larger portion of our community. While helping 800,000 undocumented young adults is admirable it still leaves out the remaining 1 million undocumented youth who don't meet the requirements. And, in this case, the age cap of 30 is going to leave out some of the pioneers of the undocumented immigrant youth movement. In addition, what about the 10 million undocumented adults?
In light of the growing power of the undocumented immigrant youth movement, I am deciding to be optimistic that this new policy will be fully implemented and that additional reforms providing a pathway to citizenship will come soon. We have learned how to fight and we will continue until the battle to implement these new policies is won.
And so this 2012 graduation season can start on a note of hope. Hopefully, in 60 days, these graduates will be able to use their degrees with the help of newly issued work permits.