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Top 10 of 2012 - Issue #2: Obama Administration Action Benefitting DREAMers a Game-Changer in U.S. Immigration Debate

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Top 10 of 2012 - Issue #2: Obama Administration Action Benefitting DREAMers a Game-Changer in U.S. Immigration Debate

South Koreans, though a small share of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, are among the top applicants for deferred action. (Photo courtesy of Korean Resource Center)

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For more than a decade, the U.S. Congress has been locked in policy paralysis over how to resolve the fate of the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, a significant number of whom have been living in the United States for many years (See Issue #5: The Stars May Be Aligning for Break in Long-Running Stalemate over Major U.S. Immigration Policy Reform.) In June, the Obama administration sidestepped the legislative gridlock and reframed the immigration debate in a significant way with the launch of a program that provides a two-year reprieve from deportation for eligible unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative provides administrative relief and the possibility to gain a work permit for a population widely viewed as the most sympathetic among unauthorized immigrants: Those who have spent much of their young lives in the United States but find their academic and professional trajectories blunted by their lack of legal status. As many as 1.76 million unauthorized immigrants are potentially eligible for the relief if they meet certain educational, residency, and other requirements. (See MPI's fact sheet.)

Thus far, more than 308,000 applications have been filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the agency had granted deferred action to more than 53,000 applicants in the first three months since its August 15 implementation.

Beyond the policy's reach, its political implications were huge. President Obama, who had faced significant anger within immigration communities and among immigrant-rights advocates for his perceived failure to press the case for comprehensive immigration reform legislation during his first term, gained major plaudits for the move while generating little real electoral backlash. Coming just months before a hard-fought re-election contest, the decision energized the Hispanic and Asian communities, with Hispanics providing crucial support for President Obama's re-election. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who moved hard to the right on immigration during the GOP primaries, garnered just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote — well short of what previous Republican nominees had polled.

The excitement surrounding the deferred action program within immigrant communities was palpable. On August 15, the first day that USCIS began receiving DACA applications, an estimated 13,000 people lined up outside the Navy Pier in Chicago for information and help filling out their paperwork. And thousands of other hopefuls thronged to similar sites in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities.

The administration's move confers relief from deportation and work authorization on a similar population as would gain lawful permanent status under the DREAM Act, a legislative proposal that has been pending in Congress since 2002. The DREAM Act, which has garnered significant bipartisan support in past years, has at times advanced separately in the House and Senate but never reached enactment. The population of young unauthorized immigrants, known as DREAMers, has become increasingly politically active and visible in recent years; and they are demanding a resolution for their circumstances.

While the deferred action initiative has been welcomed, supporters of the DREAM Act continue to press for its passage in Congress, noting that the DACA program provides only short-term relief. Critics of the deferred action initiative argued that it represented a setback to efforts to gain passage of the DREAM Act.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who had been mulling a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, contended that the president overstepped his authority and trounced congressional power with a "short-term answer to a long-term problem...that [ignores] the Constitution."

But with congressional Republicans seeking to reframe the debate in the wake of serious erosion of electoral support among Hispanics and the perception among some party leaders that Republicans' tone on immigration had become too harsh, the DREAM Act may prove a vehicle for bipartisan support. In November, retiring Republican Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas introduced an alternative to the DREAM Act — one that would not confer legal permanent residence on recipients but would provide them with permanent nonimmigrant visas. While the Republican alternative, termed the ACHIEVE Act, was not expected to be considered in Congress during its waning weeks of 2012, it could serve as a starting point for GOP lawmakers for the new legislative session that begins in January.

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