(AP Photo/Matt York)
After years of complaints from immigration rights groups about the administration’s deportation policy—which is expected to toss 400,000 immigrants from the country this year—the White House announced a significant policy shift this morning. The Department of Homeland Security said that young people (between 16 and 30) who have no criminal histories will be issued work visas allowing them to find work and stay in the country.
Despite the stark-naked political motivations—to win over Latino voters and box out Congressional Republicans, who have been talking about introducing legislation with similar intent—the policy change is still meaningful. (And it shouldn’t really be a surprise that politicians do things for political reasons, though I think undocumented young people could legitimately wonder why this wasn’t enacted two years ago, when it was clear the DREAM Act was dead in Congress).
Under the new policy, as many as 800,000 young undocumented immigrants could stay in the country indefinitely if they are between 16 and 30, have no criminal histories, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, and graduated from high school (or obtained a GED, or served in the military). Under those qualifications, they can obtain a two-year visa with no limits on how often it can be renewed.
This is doubtless a huge relief to many people who came to the country without documentation when they were young and have known no other home, and have been trying to build a life while under constant fear of deportation.
Unlike previous easements of deportation policy, like last summer’s announcement that only people with criminal histories would be targeted, this shift is important because the government will issue work visas conferring legitimate legal status on people instead of just granting an understanding that they won’t be deported. Also, the policy is affirmative, meaning one can approach DHS and apply for the visa instead of waiting to be caught by authorities.
But there are several important caveats. Since this is an executive action, it could (and likely would) be reversed by President Romney in six months. Granted, the administration had no choice to go this route, since House Republicans have already declared the DREAM Act dead, but undocumented young people still know they are walking on shaky ground even with the new policy.
Previous administration efforts to ease deportations also create reasons to be skeptical. Though the administration claimed it would exercise discretion and deport only those with violent criminal histories, deportations only dropped an almost imperceptible two percent.
Without question, the new policy isn’t enough and the undocumented need a comprehensive immigration strategy to be enshrined through legislation. But with Republicans like Rubio already saying the new policy is “welcome news,” the administration may be pulling the debate to the left and making a comprehensive solution more likely.