Obama’s immigration test run raises cheers, alarm
President Obama’s non-deportation policy for children turns a year old Thursday, and both sides agree it’s a test run for a broader legalization — one that has thrilled immigrant rights groups who say it has broken stereotypes and changed the political calculus, but that has worried enforcement advocates who say illegal immigrants are being given blanket approval without enough attention to fraud.
Known in governmentspeak as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program has granted a two-year stay of deportation to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and has given them the chance to remain and work in the U.S. with no danger of being kicked out.
Mr. Obama announced the program last year, saying he was tired of waiting for Congress to pass a bill granting young illegal immigrants a full pathway to citizenship, so in the absence of that he would use executive discretion to decide not to deport any of the young adults, who call themselves Dreamers after the Dream Act legislation that failed in Congress.
The president’s campaign-season move energized Hispanic voters, boxed in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and fundamentally altered political calculations, setting the stage for Mr. Obama’s re-election and for the current immigration debate on Capitol Hill.
“DACA was a turning point,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. “It put a face on the immigration issue and set aside fears that legalization is unworkable or politically disastrous. It showed that immigration reform on a grander scale can work and that it is the right thing to do.”
Through June 30, the program, administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, had approved 400,562 applications, or 98.7 percent of those who received final decisions.
Mr. Obama’s policy was controversial from the start. For years, he denied that he had the authority to issue a blanket stay of deportation, but changed his mind as he was trying to find a way to connect with Hispanic voters last year.
The administration initially said there was no official legal status attached to DACA, but later reversed and said it was a two-year grant of legal presence that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses.
The policy has survived one legal challenge in a federal court in Texas. Now some lawmakers fear — and activists hope — that Mr. Obama will expand his policy to include more illegal immigrants if Congress fails to pass a bill that would grant them a pathway to citizenship.
The Senate has passed such a bill, including a quick pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. House Republicans have declared that bill dead, but leaders have said they would write their own set of bills, including one that would grant Dreamers permanent legal status.
In the meantime, DACA has given the government and immigrant rights groups a chance to figure out how best to help immigrants enroll.
“I almost consider what we’re doing as a road test for broader legalization implementation — whether that’s broader policy change that comes from the president or legislative change — everything we’re doing really from outreach to community efforts to bring costs down, from partnering with our national legal partners, even our back-end data system, all this is really testing and developing best practices for legalization,” said Adam Luna, director of Own the Dream, an advocacy group.
Among those lessons are that some requirements, such as paying high application fees and requiring English skills, could keep immigrants from becoming legalized. Mr. Luna also said activists have learned how to combat misinformation about the program and how to help applicants avoid scams.
Those who want stricter law enforcement say that if DACA is a test run, it has been a failure.
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