President Barack Obama’s Friday announcement of an ‘administrative DREAM Act’ policy will provide an interesting backdrop to the debate. The president stated that young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will not be deported, allowing them more time to pursue an education or join the military.
The president was immediately praised and criticized for the election-year policy shift, which suddenly puts a hot-button issue squarely in the cross-hairs of what is quickly becoming a volatile election campaign.
“In the end, it’s still only a first step,” said Cleveland attorney José Feliciano, also convener of the Hispanic Roundtable. “At the end of the day, we still need comprehensive immigration reform.”
Feliciano stated “of course he is” when asked if the president was pandering to the Latino vote in the middle of his re-election bid. Many political observers believe Latinos will ultimately decide the race between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Ohio also is seen as a key battleground state in the race for the White House.
The Cleveland lawyer also maintained the new policy won’t accomplish the same broad objectives of the DREAM Act, even though the president renewed his call on Congress to pass the legislation.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based group Alliance for Immigrants Rights and Reform (AIR) praised the presidential decree in a statement issued the same afternoon it was announced on June 15, 2012.
The change would stop the deportations of young people who arrived before the age of 16, have been in the U.S. for at least five years, are younger than age 30, and are actively pursuing education or have graduated from high school. The estimated 800,000 eligible immigrants, as well as those not yet in deportation proceedings, would also be able to go through a process to apply for work permits.
“We thank the President, who has taken bold action, and congratulate the youth who came out of the shadows, stuck to their guns, and won a big victory,” said Ryan Bates, director of AIR. “That fearless spirit must carry us forward as we continue the fight for relief for all the immigrant families and workers that are contributing to our country.”
While praising the decision, the group also called on the Obama administration to push for comprehensive immigration reform. Advocates also sounded a note of caution that relief for DREAM Act students would take place through the 'prosecutorial discretion' program, which the group called “woefully inadequate” since its announcement a year ago. AIR called on the president to “work with the community to ensure that relief is fully and adequately implemented.” The group also vowed “the fight will continue to win real relief for the millions of undocumented workers, families, and young people not eligible for this program.”
Republicans in the U.S. Senate held up passage of the DREAM Act with a filibuster twice in 2010 and heavily criticized President Obama’s policy change as an “end run” around Congress.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) issued a scathing statement attacking the president’s executive order. Portman is a Cincinnati Republican rumored to be among the possible vice presidential running mates for Mitt Romney.
“Despite promising to address illegal immigration early in his term, the president has failed to lead on yet another important national issue, and is instead resorting to an election-year gambit that provides no certainty to immigrants, employers, and the American people,” said Sen. Portman, “The president's job is to build consensus on tough issues, not pick and choose what laws he enforces based on campaign polling data.”
Kaptur v. Kucinich
The Congressional office of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-9th District) failed to respond to a request for comment by press time.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-10th District) issued a statement supportive of the president’s executive order.
“The demonization of immigrants that has been amplified over the last several years tears at the very fabric that has made the United States the country it is,” said Rep. Kucinich. “In the wake of Congress’ failure to pass the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform, the announcement by the Obama Administration to cease deporting undocumented immigrant youth who meet certain requirements is a critical step toward addressing our broken immigration system and keeping the American dream alive.”
The DREAM Act surfaced as a major campaign issue as the two incumbents squared off in a March primary won by Ms. Kaptur, who voted against the legislation in 2010. Kucinich, who leaves Congress at the end of the year, called on his colleagues to pass it.
“Our immigration laws should not punish students who have grown up in the U.S. and who have no path to citizenship if their parents do not have an immigration status,” he said.
“Immigrant students who want to contribute to the communities that helped raise them should not be prevented from doing so. The announcement represents a critical step toward ensuring that all students have access to educational opportunities.”
Kaptur’s Republican challenger issued a statement condemning Obama’s executive order as “unconstitutional” and “totalitarian,” calling it “a gift to illegal aliens.”
“Additional amnesty and illegal labor will further depress the already stagnant wages which Ohio workers are experiencing,” said Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who first gained fame by questioning Obama about taxes during a 2008 presidential campaign stop in the Toledo area. “It’s one more blatant affront to the authority of the Constitution.”
The reality remains that President Obama’s executive order is the first substantive movement on immigration since he took office. The effects in Ohio could open the door of higher education to not just Latinos, but any immigrant seeking a college degree and faced with uncertainty.
The most high-profile deportation case to date in Northwest Ohio involves a German-born man who just graduated from Tiffin University. Manuel Bartsch said the policy shift means he can move forward with his life without fear of federal authorities deporting younger illegal immigrants. Bartsch was jailed for more than two weeks and threatened with deportation seven years ago while living in Northwest Ohio.
Bartsch was just 10 when his step-grandfather brought him from Germany to Ohio, but failed to process his immigration papers. Bartsch now will be able to stay in the U.S., apply for a work visa, and will be able to start a career. Thousands of young Latinos are facing a similar situation.
The Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), which has been working on behalf of undocumented Latino students across the nation to keep them in the U.S., also praised the decision, stating it achieves a crucial element of the legislation by deferring deportation by at least two years.
“Today is a landmark day for the thousands of DREAMers who have served, learned, and worked in the United States for most of their lives,” said Benny Agosto, president of HNBA. “These young people, Americans through and through, no longer must live in fear of deportation from their adopted homeland. All Americans should rejoice that these students, soldiers, and members of our communities will continue to contribute to our nation.”
Ironically, Cleveland will celebrate World Refugee Day on Wednesday, June 20, at Saigon Plaza, a celebration of all the immigrants who now call Northeast Ohio their home. The International Services Center, Cleveland's immigrant welcome center for nearly 100 years, is putting on the celebration. The local agency helps refugees resettle in the Cleveland area and regards their work as providers of a safe haven for those fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, and political opinion.
Feliciano has joined an effort by other Latino leaders to press Global Cleveland to focus its efforts on attracting all immigrant families to the city, not just the best and brightest—in particular, highly-educated scientists, engineers, and others in technological fields.
“We want comprehensive immigration reform,” said Feliciano. “Neither candidate has satisfied the Roundtable’s interests on immigration. We would like to see either or both come forward with comprehensive immigration reform and we think that needs to include a path to citizenship for those who are here already.”
Feliciano recently was inducted into the Cleveland International Hall of Fame for his advocacy work on behalf of the Latino community. Born in Puerto Rico, the attorney is both the founder and chairman of the Hispanic Roundtable, a non-profit organization that aims to empower Cleveland’s Latino community.
He called the honor the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award that served as bittersweet recognition, expressing sadness that his brother and father weren’t around the share in the accomplishment.
“I’m honored to be recognized for one of my interests, my commitment for one of the passions in my life—the development of the Hispanic community and the respect it deserves,” he said. “
But Feliciano also admitted it has been a frustrating path to work on behalf of fellow Latinos, who continue to wage the same battles on education, immigration, and numerous other issues.
“It has been and continues to be frustrating,” he admitted.
Feliciano likened the struggle for recognition to the story of mythological story of Sisyphus, who was condemned for eternity to the frustrating task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down the slope each time.
“At the Roundtable, we are interested in transforming the relationship between the Hispanic community and the broader community,” he said. “That I would consider a genuine reward if we could do that and achieve the respect and the parity and equality that our community, quite frankly, deserves.”