Obama’s big accomplishment on immigration

One of the best things that happened in 2012 was President Obama’s June 15 announcement that his administration would stop deporting immigrant youth.

The administration’s program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has allowed kids who entered the United States without proper papers to apply for protection from deportation. The program gives them an opportunity to earn a work permit if they pass a background check and meet certain educational requirements.

To date, the program has been a tremendous success.

For Dreamers, as these immigrant youth call themselves, this was the opening chapter of their American dream.

Many have lived in the United States since their preschool years and have grown up to see their classmates and friends attend college, get driver’s licenses, and work, while they — hampered by their lack of immigration status — could not. With deferred action in hand, a Dreamer can do so and enjoy a feeling of belonging in the only country they consider home.

Dreamers have been applying for deferred action in droves. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received more than 300,000 applications since the Aug. 15 program start date, and more than 102,000 of those applications have been approved.

This is especially momentous for my colleagues and me; we’ve worked with countless Dreamers to submit applications, and we celebrate with them when they received word that their applications were approved.

But perhaps the most important result of the deferred action program is the effect it has had on popular perception of immigrants.

By bringing Dreamers to the fore, the program has highlighted the human side of the immigrant experience. Dreamers tell a compelling story: of shattered college dreams, of painful family separations and of awkward conversations with life-long friends and love interests.

When Obama announced the program, 64 percent of Americans supported it, according to a Bloomberg News poll.

Given early estimates that more than 1 million individuals might qualify, many were skeptical that the administration would be able to pull it off. In fact, deferred action has been a reminder that when government agencies work with people, they can be remarkably efficient.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has organized calls and meetings with stakeholders, and has actively sought feedback from organizations and attorneys providing assistance to deferred action applicants. It has made decisions on applications in a timely manner. The rules have been relatively simple and the process straightforward.

Six months into this program, we’ve relearned that being American isn’t about where you were born or what color your skin is; it’s about what’s in your character.

Unfortunately, too many family members of Dreamers cannot fully contribute to their communities and economies. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has been a good first step, but Washington shouldn’t stop there.

Let’s build on the success of the Deferred Action program to create an immigration system that recognizes the parents, siblings and grandparents of Dreamers for what they are: Americans at heart, waiting only for papers that identify them as such.

Kamal Essaheb is policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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