06/20/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Obama's "Deferred Action" for Undocumented Youth: A Privilege or What Is Right?

President Obama surprised the nation recently with the announcement that he was implementing a policy of "deferred action" -- in effect, a degree of legal protection from deportation for undocumented young people who meet a set of specific requirements; the news was met by tears of joy and cries of jubilation by some one million young people who might find some relief from this measure.

That figure, while large in terms of individual lives, is quite small when one considers that some 40,000 green cards are regularly authorized each year, and these young people have lived here for many years. And of course, no green cards are being offered here.

This "prosecutorial discretion," though only a temporary, stopgap measure, is an important step towards addressing a huge problem in this nation. Every year approximately 65,000 young people graduate from high school only to realize that they cannot afford college because they are not eligible for federal financial aid, and in many states do not qualify for in-state tuition. They also do not have legal authorization to work. What are they to do?

In his speech, President Obama argued that this action is the "right thing to do." He suggested that it's right because it was not these children's decision to come here, and for most this is the only country they have known. As he said, "they are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one. On paper."

But President Obama did not rest on this logic of children's rights. Instead, he emphasized that these young people have earned their right to live here, and that it's right for them to be here because we -- American society -- will benefit from their legalization. He claimed, "It makes no sense to expel talented young people who... are going to make extraordinary contributions, and are already making extraordinary contributions to our society."

Unfortunately, there lurks here a dangerous subtext which says (as in the Dream Act) that children need to earn the privilege to what is, in fact, enshrined as a basic and inalienable human right in the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Of course, to our shame, the United States is one of only two nations in the world that has not signed this declaration. The other is piracy-ridden Somalia.

"Deferred action" will only be granted to high school graduates who have no criminal records, with the possible exception of any as-yet-to-be-defined misdemeanor. Indeed, the criteria for exclusion is a little unclear and clouds the issue of how safe it may be for young people to come forward and apply for deferred action; making a public declaration of their own undocumented status also may pose a risk for family members who themselves will not be protected by this decree. We do not apply such narrowing -- and conflicting -- standards to any other children raised in this country.

And too, would it be any wonder that some immigrant youth have misdemeanors on their records, or drop out of school? Sociologists and psychologists attest that challenging social circumstances negatively affect child development. Many of these immigrant children have parents who work long hours (often tending to other people's children) and can't afford childcare. Their children generally attend substandard schools, and have repeatedly been told - implicitly or explicitly -- that they don't belong here.

To me it's remarkable that so many of these young people are such model Americans, given that the odds have been so stacked against them.

If we really wanted to do what is right -- to protect children's human rights -- surely we would hold children accountable for their actions, but not kick them out of the only home they have known when they are not perfect children.

I know there are many reasons for framing the decree in this way, and that giving relief to some undocumented children may well be better than withholding relief from all. But we should at least be very clear: Obama's policy change will -- hopefully -- protect the rights of model students, solid patriots, and flawless citizens -- a group of people any nation should be proud to call its own.

Who is then to decide the subjective issue of "worthiness?" Let us at least ponder whether we want to set the precedent that hope -- and human rights -- should have to be earned, especially by children.