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Administrative Relief for Immigrants is Good... but We Need to do Better

Finally, it appears that President Obama has taken a concrete step towards making our nation’s immigration system more humane. White House officials announced on Thursday what appears to be the much-awaited “administrative relief” that immigration-reform advocates demanded for over a year, since the Democrats failed to pass any sort of comprehensive immigration reform when they controlled both the House and Senate. While this certainly is an important victory for immigrants and their advocates, we shouldn’t be fooled that it in any way constitutes the sort of real and lasting change that only an act of Congress can provide.

This new policy is essentially a directive from the President to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano that gives her the discretion to stop the deportation proceedings (on an individual basis) of undocumented immigrants who pose no threat to public safety. DHS must now prioritize its law-enforcement resources and review the cases of nearly 300,000 undocumented immigrants currently in deportation proceedings to determine which ones are truly dangerous.  

These new directives fall in line with what have already been the stated priorities of DHS. Yet, the Obama administration has deported over 1,000,000 immigrants, including many families and non-violent offenders who pose no risk to public safety, clogging our already overburdened and unsafe deportation system.

Maybe now, undocumented immigrants who qualify for the DREAM Act can rest a little easier since they don’t fit the description of who DHS should be going after. These young people, known as "dreamers," were brought to the United States as children, have obeyed our nation's laws, and are college or military bound.

Immigrants who qualify for relief are also eligible to apply for work permits -- essentially a taxpayer ID card, that allows for official employment instead of being trapped in an underground economy without worker protections or a minimum wage. Additionally, the new policy would also take in to account undocumented immigrants with family members in the U.S., which for the first time includes LGBTQ partners.

While this is all certainly a victory for the immigrant rights community, it should not be seen as an answer to fixing our nation’s broken immigration system and is no substitute for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill or piecemeal reform such as the DREAM Act. These directives are only in effect under the current administration. Should President Obama lose the Oval Office come 2012, a different president could easily issue new enforcement directives to resume mass deportations of immigrants who pose no risk to public safety. Additionally, various field offices and officials in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the branch of DHS that handles deportations, are holdovers from previous administrations who have proven to be unwilling to prioritize violent offenders over people who, say, have been given traffic tickets.

The only real solution to fixing our nation’s broken immigration system is action from Congress, which, sadly in our political climate does not appear to be forthcoming. Which is why, without a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provides a path for legalization, clears the immigration backlogs, and keeps families together, this administrative relief is nothing but a band-aid when what we need is surgery.

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