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Deferred Action: Half a Loaf is Way Better Than None, But It Is Still Half a Loaf

Like 9/11, the June 15th announcement of the new policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was, for me, one of those moments when something so shocking happens that you remember forever where you were and what you were doing. I have so much invested, professionally and personally, in meaningful immigration reform that my reaction was pure joy. Suddenly, young people brought to the United States when they were children, young people with educational attainments and/or military service and clean records, had the opportunity to apply for actual permission to be in the country!

For those of us who have papers, or do not need them, this may not sound like such a huge cause for rejoicing. For the many children I have watched growing up at Casa Juan Diego, for the undocumented students on my campus, for many of the estimated 1.7 million children and youth potentially eligible, this new policy could be a life-changer. If they qualify and can pay the fees, they now can have temporary protection against arbitrary deportation, the possibility to get a work permit, and a reason to hope that their education and hard work might pay off for them and for their adopted country. They could come out of the shadows.

In those first days after the announcement, it felt like a grand redemption had occurred. Washington had finally responded to the wishes of the majority of the American people and acknowledged the unfairness of current immigration policy to this DREAMer generation. Those brought to the United States as children by their families, unwillingly joining the ranks of an economic and social underclass, now had a chance to change both their history and their future.

At Casa Juan Diego I have helped to support and guide some of the undocumented children we know as they try to make the transition from high school to college. Hold their hands, almost literally, because the process has been very difficult and very frightening. College admission requires them to formally admit, to an institution of government, that they do not have a social security number. Everybody knows what this means. What would prevent ICE from stopping by the Registrar’s office and looking you up in the University’s records? Those records even have your address!

For those of us who have not lived our lives in the shadows, this may seem like paranoia. For those who have seen parents, or parents of their friends, caught up in workplace raids and deported, for those who have heard politicians outdo each other in calling for mass deportation, it seemed a reasonable fear.

This has changed. Students already seem less burdened. A new student I met last week came in with her mother, absolutely radiating confidence. She had already applied for Deferred Action. She wants to be a medical professional, and now she sees no reason why she cannot. What a difference a few months can make!  For both the DREAMers and their parents.

I participated in some of the early meetings and orientation sessions to learn about how I could help both the children of Casa Juan Diego and my college students apply for Deferred Action. At the first large orientation I attended, I was surprised by the eagerness of entire families to learn about the new regulations and their anxiety about the possibility of something going wrong. We think often of the sadness and loss of talent and opportunity of the DREAMers themselves, but we somet-imes forget that the majority of these young people have parents that are desperate to help their children to excel, to reach their full potential. Until now, being undocumented themselves, they could do very little to help. This new policy was, for many of these parents, their first and perhaps only opportunity to help their children, and their anxiety was palpable. For many of these parents, unfortunately, their fear and anxiety was well founded.

Those undocumented children who had stuck it out, who had stayed in high school and graduated, were in relatively good shape on the day of the Deferred Action announcement. If, on the other hand, you did not finish, you and your family were frightened. I talked to many young people, 17, 18, and 19 years old, that had dropped out of high school when it seemed a meaningless task for them. Why study, when no amount of education could get you a real job, a job that required papers? But the new regulations meant that dropouts were not eligible. What could they do, how could they qualify? Was it too late for them?

I recently worked with a family of a would-be DREAMer, Robert, who as the oldest child in his family was the only one not documented; his siblings were born in the U.S.  He had lived almost his entire life in the United States, earned his high school diploma, but at the age of 18 had been detained in a workplace raid and deported to Nicaragua, where he knew not a soul. He made friends there, his family saved their money and now, a couple years later, he started his long journey to get back home.  Robert made it all the way across Central America and Mexico but was caught by the Border Patrol just as he crossed into the country that he considered his home, the only home he ever knew. Although he would have been eligible for Deferred Action had he not been deported the first time, he had, in effect, made himself ineligible by being in the wrong place at the wrong time two years ago, and was sent right back to Nicaragua.

When we learned that he had already been deported again, all that his mother, sitting in our tiny library at Casa Juan Diego, wanted to know was: did he go back alone? What had happened to his friend that had traveled with him? I had to tell her the truth that the detention officer had told me: he was deported alone.

It could have been worse, though, if you want to look at it that way. Instead of a second deportation, he could have gotten years of federal prison. The next time he tries it, if there is a next time, that is very likely what will happen.

Even for those who are potentially eligible for Deferred Action, we should not underestimate the difficulties.  The policy is directed towards those young people that would qualify for the Dream Act, should it someday pass in Congress, by allowing them to apply for a temporary halt to their deportation, with the possibility of receiving a work permit if financial need can be demonstrated (see the entire guidelines at: http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis).

Applying for Deferred Action requires a significant amount of bravery and a giant leap of faith.  You must prove to the Department of Homeland Security that you have been living as an undocumented person in the United States since before you turned 16 years old, continuously for the past 5 years, and that you were physically in the United States on June 15th, 2012, the day the new policy was announced. Keep in mind that this is all information that you and your family have worked very hard to conceal. Essentially, you are handing over to the very agency whose job it is to deport you all the evidence they need to actually do so. No guarantees are given. Deferred Action is not the Dream Act, it is not an act of Congress at all. Its basis is President Obama’s executive order, and what one President giveth, another could taketh away.

But even if Deferred Action becomes permanent and the DREAMer genera-tion is safe from deportation, or, better yet, even if the more comprehensive Dream Act actually passes Congress, giving the path to citizenship that Deferred Action does not, problems persist. The many difficulties of the undocumented are family difficulties, not just the problems of their children. Even if the children are safe from deportation, their undocumented parents are not. If they remain undocu-mented workers, they will have no social security or Medicare.  They will likely not own their homes or other assets. They will not have accumulated savings for retirement. The burden of their support and care will go to their DREAMer children. Not as a shared burden with society, but as a totally individual burden. Resources that could have gone to the DREAMers’ own children for college, to buy a home, or for their own retirements, will go to care for their parents instead, further penalizing them and holding back generation after genera-tion.

Catching up will not be easy. Creating laws in such a way that certain groups are penalized across generations for conditions or characteristics that are beyond their control is the very definition of institutionalized oppression. I know that as a nation, we want and can achieve better outcomes than this.

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for rejoicing, and Deferred Action is certainly one of those times. But now there is more work to be done.

Houston Catholic Worker, November-December 2012, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5.