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Sylvia Puente Headshot

Deferred Action is not our DREAM: On Obama's $585M Immigration Bandage

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I attended a community discussion around immigration reform in Chicago last week and was surprised to hear -- several times -- well-intentioned applause around President Obama's "partial implementation" of the DREAM Act. And now, as we wait for the Department of Homeland Security to release details around the program, the buzz around this would-be DREAM Act has grown to a roar.

Hold the champagne: The DREAM -- the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which offers a pathway to education, careers, and citizenship for immigrant youth, is still stalled, as it has been since it withered on the Senate floor back in December of 2010. Instead of the sustainable reforms outlined in the DREAM Act, youth have been handed something of a bandage: Obama's June 15 announcement of "deferred action," which does little more than bump certain undocumented students and young veterans to the back of the deportation line--they will be considered "low priority" and allow them to apply for a temporary, renewable two-year work authorization if they meet a confusing list of requirements.

A temporary work permit is not citizenship--and it is certainly not a long-term fix to our long-broken immigration system.

This isn't to say that immigrant advocates, including the Latino Policy Forum, aren't heartened by deferred action: The new policy could help as many as 1.4 million undocumented youth move out of the shadows and into the working world, potentially offering much-needed boosts to our sluggish economy. But there are many hard questions that must be asked around deferred action, and I pose three of them here:

What's with the timing? It was just over year ago that President Obama stood in front of a packed room at the National Council of La Raza's 2011 annual conference, begging off calls for him to "bypass Congress and change the [immigration] laws on [his] own," claiming "that's not how our system works." But that's what he did on June 15--and that's what he could have done immediately upon taking office in 2009. Some advocates seem content to accept this "better late than never" use of executive privilege just months before the November election. But they should try justifying this political maneuvering to a heartbroken 31-year-old undocumented immigrant who just missed the age 30 cutoff to qualify for deferred action, or one of the 400,000 immigrants deported annually under Obama's watch, a number that is 30 percent higher than the annual average under Bush's second term.

What happens in January? Because the policy was born out of executive privilege, its renewal is the prerogative of our next executive as could be the case as soon as January. As the current administration won't begin accepting applications until August 15, advocates wonder just how many youths will realistically have work permits in hand by the start of the new term, given the bureaucratic red tape inevitably associated with such processes. The lucky few receiving permits will likely face difficult decisions if renewal is not a possibility in two years' time. There is a long list of other red flags associated with this new initiative, including questions around the risk assumed by undocumented youth, and their families, in moving forward with good faith applications for work permits, a move that requires them to divulge details about their immigration status to the same government agency that could potentially deport them.

What is the bottom-line benefit? The $585 million price tag on processing deferred action applications is a burden to both taxpayers and immigrant youth alike, the latter of whom will pay a $465 "paperwork fee" and thus foot the lion's share of the bill. But sticker shock aside, perhaps the most discouraging aspect of all is that deferred action only tackles part of our immigration conundrum: There is no attempt to address the fate of the other 10 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, nor the institutional economic forces that brought them here. Deferred action seems to be little more than an incredibly expensive bandage on the gushing wound that is our broken immigration system.

As we look to November and beyond, both Obama and Romney can and must do better by voters -- Latino and non-Latino alike, around the immigration reform issue. Partisan politicking aside, our elected leaders have a responsibility to fix, not bandage,what is broken.