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DREAMing of a future: The politics of undocumented youth in the USA

Note: The links in this document are to primary sources of various laws proposed/implemented.

Undocumented Immigration in the USA
According to former Huffington Post editor and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas - as cited in the latest TIME magazine cover story on undocumented immigrants - there are an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the USA. (For a short video of undocumented immigrants/immigration, click here).

Like many undocumented immigrants, Vargas came as a young child. He came with forged documents and discovered his status as a 16 year old child when he wanted to get a driver's license. Others discover their status as they try to get jobs or pursue a college education and others know from they are very young because of the tenuous nature of their parents' economic lives.

A Stay on Deportation of Undocumented Youth
As I stood in a room in London (UK) presenting on the topic titled above, on Friday June 15th, 2012, President Obama passed a 'grant of deferred action' that stated that there would be a federal stay on deportation of young immigrants. (For White House video of the announcement click here). Though making it clear that it is not immunity nor an amnesty, but a focus on higher priority undocumented immigration, more than 800,000 young people are expected to take advantage of the change in the law and perhaps gain one of the limited number of work permits that will become available.

To be eligible for this relief from deportation, applicants must have entered the USA younger than 16 years old and must be younger than 30 at the time of application, and have lived in the USA for at least 5 years. Additionally they must have graduated from high school or have a GED and must have an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard or the military. They will be disqualified if they have a felony, a serious misdemeanor or several misdemeanors and not present a threat to national security.

The main 'catch' of the President's declaration is that only Congress can decide on citizenship and thus until there is a law passed by Congress (such as the DREAM Act) there is still no path to citizenship for the young people who benefit from this new law that protects them from deportation.

This move by President Obama is a response to long-term pressure by immigrant groups to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants. The bipartisan DREAM Act originally introduced in Congress in 2001 (and re-introduced in 2009) by Republican (UT) Orin Hatch and Democrat (IL) Richard Durbin goes much further than a stay on deportation and provides a path to citizenship.

The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act (H.R. 1842 & S. 952) has the same residency requirements but the maximum age at application would be 35 years old. The Bill provides a path to citizenship through education (completing 2 years of a 4-year program) or 2 years of military service. This would give them a 6-year temporary residency and then would qualify for permanent residency upon completion of the degree or through an honorable discharge or completion of further military service.

Health and Social Welfare Benefits Without Residency
Earning permanent residency not only provides a path to citizenship (after 5 years of permanent resident status) but provides access to health and social welfare benefits. Without permanent residency, there is no access to the following social welfare benefits:

  • government-sponsored financial aid for education
  • less tuition (in-state and resident fees are much less than fees for 'foreign' students)
  • more job opportunities (more flexibility in changing jobs)
  • start their own company
  • social security
  • ease of entry into the USA 
  • Medicaid (if permanent resident for 5 years)
  • Food Stamps
  • cash aid
This is not an exhaustive list but without access to the social safety net the lack of permanent resident status negatively impacts the health and social welfare of undocumented immigrants. Even as a resident, it is expected that for 5 years, a person shall not be taking from the public coffers so immigrants are still 'on their own'.  This means that undocumented immigrants are more at risk to be exploited by employers and not to have access to the basic rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights; specifically Article 23 protects against discrimination at work, Article 25 provides for medical and social care provisions and Article 26 provides the right for an education. 

Incarceration of Undocumented Youth
For undocumented immigrants these rights exist but are not enforced or enforceable under the current laws of the United States. Furthermore, through incarceration of young adults for the crime of illegally entering the country or being convicted of a crime as a minor, the USA goes against the human rights of children. Although held under administrative detention, many young immigrants are held in criminal facilities (due to lack of capacity) and do not have access to government paid legal representation. All for a decision that was often made for them and not by them.

It should be noted that on June 4, 2012, Republican David Rivera of Florida introduced HR 5869: the STARS Act: Studying Towards Residency Act. The primary difference is that upon acceptance to a 4-year college, youth could apply for a 5 year temporary visa to study and then apply for a longer visa upon graduation. It is a more restrictive version of the DREAM Act.

Social Impact of Non-Residency
With bipartisan proposals under consideration it is clear that the issue of young undocumented immigrants is of significant concern. To have a growing population of people with no future is not conducive to social integration or economic growth. A permanent underclass of low-paid workers with no hope of becoming integrated into the fabric of the USA defies the basic foundation of the country as a refuge for those seeking a better life. Denying access to health and social welfare benefits threatens the health and social welfare of the USA because access to necessary healthcare is denied as is access to services that would deter a precipitous fall into abject poverty.

The Future of Undocumented Immigration in the USA
The struggle to redefine the immigration laws of the USA is not going to be easily or quickly resolved. Despite the fact that it would be hard to eat a meal in the USA were it not for an undocumented immigrant nor would the California wine industry exist, and the fact that the labor provided by these workers is such a significant and irreplaceable source of economic power, Republicans and Democrats and the general populace cannot agree about how to deal with these immigrants. That they are brown and from the South is similar to the barriers faced by Greeks and Italians at the turn of the 20th Century. Or the Irish in the late 19th Century. It is not simply about immigration but about what the country will look like in the future. That image, held dear by many, is not easily changed. But like all social change, their image will have to change to reflect the changing world around them.

Note: I have lived in the USA for 19 years under a variety of visas (TN, H1B, F1) as a foreign student, a worker under NAFTA and a H1 skilled employee (using my Canadian citizenship while also having British citizenship). After 18 years I decided to apply for permanent residency because of all the benefits it provided and I was tired of the seemingly random restrictions of being on a work permit. After 16 months of collecting letters etc. and filing loads of paperwork, my petition for residency based on my status as an 'outstanding professor' was granted in April 2012.


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