This week, America's immigrant youth came forward to apply for a two-year renewable stay of deportation and work authorization, known as "deferred action." As a result of President Barack Obama's administrative decision to provide deferred action to high-achieving and hardworking immigrant youth, an estimated 1.7 million undocumented young people will benefit, including over 104,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders. In California, that means approximately 412,560 bright young immigrants are eligible, more than any other state.
While deferred action does not provide a road map to legal residency or citizenship, we must use this is a stepping stone to build support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Why? First, our country has failed to tackle comprehensive immigration reform for over a decade, and misguided policies among states are proliferating, leaving a large segment of the immigrant community in dire straits. Congress has the moral and political imperative to avoid patchwork state measures and act swiftly. We must reform our nation's broken immigration system in a fair and sensible way, for our communities, our businesses and our security. The deferred action policy starts us in that direction. Later will come the reunification of families, an end to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants and families, and the reduction of backlogs.
Second, we must recognize the American spirit of entrepreneurialism and opportunity represented in those creating the groundswell for deferred action. Immigrant youth mobilized a vision and put a human face to immigration. From campaign organizing, "coming out" rallies and sit-ins, to promoting legislation, providing resources and halting the deportation of deferred-action-eligible youth, they mobilized communities and exposed the realities of the immigrant story. Thanks to their efforts, deferred action offers organizers some relief in the fight for a broader reform package that includes loved ones ineligible for deferment.
Third, the deferred action policy offers a glimpse of the potential possible after passing the related, but more comprehensive, Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, bipartisan legislation that failed to pass in 2010. It would have granted a conditional six-year path to legal, permanent U.S. residence for immigrant youth brought here as children (some of the youth eligible for deferred action). Specifically, the bill applies to youth who completed high school, demonstrated good moral character and completed at least two years of higher education or U.S. military service. Congress missed an opportunity here because the economic benefits to passing DREAM are notable, especially amid austerity budgeting.
If Congress goes beyond deferred action and passes the DREAM Act, it will convert these undocumented students into a taxpayers who will contribute trillions of dollars to our economy. Their earning power over the next 40 years is $3.6 trillion, according to the University of California at Los Angeles. While deferred action policy falls short of the DREAM Act, we will still witness the productive contributions of young immigrants. Deferred action beneficiaries will use their work authorization and college degrees, tenacity, creativity, and innovation to make our economy stronger. America taught them that education and hard work are vehicles for overcoming a life in the shadows. Let's not go back on that promise.
This is a momentous week for immigration reform advocates in Congress. We will work with President Obama to ensure successful implementation of the deferred action program. Wednesday marks a significant and emotional day for undocumented youth. Their perseverance in bringing immigration reform to the forefront of the legislative agenda is inspiring. As a nation we are taking a step forward in a collective fight for immigration reform that respects the dignity of immigrant communities and recognizes their contributions to making our country great.
Rep Michael Honda represents the 15th District of California and serves as the Immigration Taskforce Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Follow Rep Honda on Facebook and Twitter.