President Obama discusses his administration’s new immigration policy on Friday.
Correction: An earlier version stated the incorrect year for when Tania Chairez came to Phoenix. The correct year is 1998.
President Obama’s announcement on Friday to temporarily halt deportations of up to 800,000 undocumented youth caused a frenzy across the nation — many mistakenly hailed it as a passing of the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act, an initiative congressional Democrats have been trying to pass for the last several years, would grant legal status to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, have completed high school and either attended college or served in the military.
Tania Chairez, a 19-year-old marketing junior at the University of Pennsylvania was not impressed with Obama’s speech. Chairez, a self-described “undocumented and unafraid” student, was brought from Mexico to Phoenix, Ariz. in 1998 with her parents.
“It mimics last year’s statement about prosecutorial discretion,” Chairez said. “This doesn’t give us any legal status. We can apply for work permits but even those can be taken away, at any time, without a particular reason.”
Chairez, a legislative strategist with the National Immigration Youth Alliance, (NIYA) said the network is hesitant to celebrate the policy change.
“We feel [Obama] made this statement today because he was under a lot of pressure from all the undocumented students doing sit-ins in his [re-election] offices across the nation,” she said. “We have to be careful and see if they actually implement it.”
A memo from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano states the application process to claim deportation immunity will begin in 60 days. To qualify, an illegal immigrant must have been brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 and are currently younger than 30. They must have been in the country for at least five continuous years, graduated from high school or served in the military and have a minimal criminal record — no convictions for felonies, “significant misdemeanors” or multiple misdemeanors.
Itzel Gonzalez, a 17-year-old Harnett Central High School senior in North Carolina, was relieved when her sister screeched over the phone to share the news about the immigration policy. Gonzalez was born in Mexico City and raised in the U.S. since infancy.
After graduating in May 2013, she will qualify to avoid deportation and hopes to attend college and pursue a career in the medical field.
“I’m a great student, a runner at school and it scared me — going into my senior year — that I wouldn’t be able to go to college,” Gonzalez said. “How am I supposed to make something of my life?”
Nearly half of Gonzalez’s senior class has no college ambitions, which she said frustrates her because they are wasting scholarship opportunities that her undocumented status prevents her from taking advantage of.
Situations like Gonzalez’s garner empathy from students like Oluwafemi Agbabiaka, a 19-year-old political science sophomore at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Agbabiaka, a Chicago native, considers himself politically conservative but is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming immigration changes.
“I don’t believe that children of parents who have illegally immigrated to America should be held responsible for decisions that they didn’t make,” he said. “A step towards equality for any minority group is a step forward for America as a whole.”
The strategic timing, in the midst of an election year, is not lost on those who will be affected most by the impending deportation changes. For some students like Gonzalez, they identify as Americans in every way except on paper. These changes are a significant push to make their dreams of citizenship a reality.
“Maybe [Obama] did do it for politics but it was the right thing to do,” Gonzalez said. “We have been here our whole lives. We can’t go back to a place that we don’t know anything about.”
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