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Immigration Nation

June 21st, 2012

Photo credit with thanks: Elvert Barnes via Flickr/Creative Commons

President Obama announced on Friday that he’ll be making a special exception for young people who are here in the U.S. from another country — but who never got permission from the U.S. government to be here.

Many of the 800,000 people his decision applies to were brought here as kids by their parents. But because they weren’t born here and didn’t get permission to stay, it also means they’re technically here against the law.

The President’s decision is for young adults who are now between 16 – 30 years old, who went to school in the U.S., or were in the military, and who otherwise haven’t been in trouble with the law.  He says they can apply to the U.S. government to stay here. But only for 2 years. During that time, they’d need to figure out what they’re going to do. In the meantime, though, they’d be safe from being ‘deported’ (sent back to their original country).

There are millions of people in this country who are here without official U.S. permission, so why is this group of people being given special consideration?

It has to do with their parents having brought them here as kids. It was a choice that, as kids, they couldn’t make themselves. President Obama said, “Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.”

He added, “It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians. President Obama referred to them as “Americans … in every single way but one … on paper.”

You can watch a video about one 10-year old’s experience being sent back to Mexico, by clicking here . He was featured in this week’s  New York Times . You can see President Obama’s announcement from Friday below:

President Obama’s decision is controversial.

The youth he’s referring to are called DREAMers. Congress (lawmakers) tried for a decade to pass a law called the DREAM Act for this very population of young people. DREAM stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. Alien, in this case, means someone who belongs to another country.

But the DREAM Act never passed, and it was put on hold last year. President Obama’s announcement on Friday was an executive action, meaning that he found a way to make it happen without it having to become law (requiring Congress’s approval). Presidents can sometimes do that.

Some people applauded him for being compassionate toward the DREAMers and making it happen. Others believe he overstepped his authority. They also criticized him for doing it a few months before the presidential election, saying he did it to get more votes.

Many of the young people at issue are from Spanish speaking countries (often called Hispanics). Mexico is a big one, Cuba too. Those who aren’t American citizens aren’t allowed to vote, but there’s a very big Hispanic population in the U.S., about 50 million people . They supported the DREAM Act and support immigration in general.

(Immigration in the U.S. has to do with people living and working here, but who came here from other countries. The U.S. government would like people here to either be a citizen of the United States or get special permission to be here.)

Hispanics are a big and powerful enough group that they could make the difference in who becomes the next president — President Obama again … or Mitt Romney (the Republican Nominee). The Democrats (Obama) and the Republicans (Romney) both know this and are trying to do what they can to get the support of the Hispanic population — especially because experts are predicting the election is going to be very close.

Friday’s decision helps President Obama gain favor with Hispanics. But even some of them wished he’d done more.

Mitt Romney did not support the DREAM Act and criticized President Obama’s announcement. He said that the President should have done something sooner and more permanent. But he did not say that if he became president he would “repeal” (undo) President Obama’s executive action. Mr. Romney, too, is looking to gain favor with Hispanics. He is also considering a senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, to be his Vice Presidential running mate. Senator Rubio’s family is from Cuba and he came to the U.S. as a child much like those the President is addressing in his new policy. Senator Rubio has said recently that if he needed to, he would have come the U.S. illegally to try give his family a better life.

Interestingly, a new study came out just this week saying that there are now more Asian immigrants in the U.S. than Hispanic immigrants. They may end up playing a role in this debate as well.


A Bigger Picture

The topic of immigration is about much more than whether it’s legal for some people to be here or not. It’s about individual human lives. Maybe even yours. The United States was, afterall, settled by immigrants … and many of us are enjoying life in the U.S. today because of them.

Immigration can mean the difference between a good life and a terrible life for some. Many people are willing to risk their lives to come here because of poverty, lack of freedom, and lack of basic human rights in their own countries. Some die trying. Right now, about  3% of the world’s population lives outside of the country they were born in . It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 190 million people.

Often, they leave their countries in the hopes of finding a better life elsewhere. Those who support immigration generally believe those people have a right to a better life, and immigration is one way to help them.

But not everyone sees it this way. Opponents will say that while the U.S. is a nation of people, it’s also a nation of laws. And if the law says it’s illegal, then anyone who’s here without permission should be sent back to their home country, including the young DREAMers. But it’s people who make laws. The problem is many people disagree strongly on what those laws should be.

It’s not all or none. The U.S. government does allow about a million people in each year (our population is 300 million). But fewer people are allowed in than the amount of people who want to be here. Many people come anyway. The New York Times reported that nearly half of “the Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. are here illegally…”

Some people refer to those who are here under those circumstances as “undocumented immigrants”, others call them “illegal immigrants”.  This topic is so controversial that many people don’t even agree on what to call them, and each label has a very different feeling to it, doesn’t it?

So, how do you decide who you allow in? How many? And from where?

Should people be allowed to travel freely across borders?

Do we choose who comes in based on culture, clothes, ideas, intellect, language? What is the criteria? People like us? People different from us? A bit of both?

Do we, as people, have a responsibility to try to help those who look to the U.S. for a better life?

How do we balance our laws to reflect the clear demand of people wanting to come here?

Would the U.S. become overcrowded if we let a lot more people in? (Some say not at all. Others argue yes).

Do immigrants, especially “undocumented” ones, take jobs away from Americans? Some argue yes, some argue no. Some say “undocumented” immigrants do jobs that most Americans wouldn’t do, including at animal slaughter houses and restaurant kitchens, for example. And they will often work for less money. But opponents say that there are many Americans without jobs and those working here without permission are part of the reason.

Some say who are we to have let ourselves in, in the past, but then shut the door on those wanting to come in the future?

What effect do immigrants have on our society?  Positive or negative? Two experts addressed that in yesterday’s  New York Times newspaper. You can read more about their conclusions by clicking here .

You can find out more about the position for and against President Obama’s decision by clicking on the green highlighted parts.

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18 Comments on “Immigration Nation”

  • Chris says:

    I am a teacher. Several years ago I had a wonderful, smart, hardworking Korean student. She had come to the U.S. when in 7th grade with no English at all, and I taught her U.S. history as a junior and “Humanities” (an elective) as a senior. This kid just kept getting better–increasingly strong as a writer, an analytical thinker, and a heart of gold. She did a year-long humanities project on “Religious Faith in the Writings of Leo Tolstoy” of all things–she defined the topic.

    I expected she was going to ask me to write her a college recommendation. She didn’t. I started asking her guidance counselor where she was in the college application process, and he said she didn’t seem to be engaging it. He told me she had excellent SATs and came from a single-parent family–she seemed an ideal candidate for a scholarship.

    It turned out she was an illegal immigrant. She finally told me all about it. Her mom had moved from S. Korea to Peru when she was about 6, and then had brought her to the states in middle school. The mom worked in a nail salon, probably for peanuts. My student was being pressured, at age 17, to marry someone who was a citizen in order to stay in the country. The kid had enough gumption not to marry for immigration status, and she ended up going back to Peru in order to avoid deportation.

    I lost touch with her soon after she graduated, but I’ll never forget that kid. She would have been a great American. She would have breezed through college and either gone to med school (her dream) or done something else equally worthwhile. She’s just what this country needs–endless determination, brains, and a ton of empathy. Not only did we lose her, but I worry still about where she ended up. How does a broke kid with a high school degree and no connections make it in a country like Peru?

    I’m not sure Obama’s action would have allowed this kid to go to college, but it might have given her more time to figure out her next move.

    • Lukas says:

      Thank you for sharing that story Chris. Excellent reporting by immigrant advocates has surfaced countless such stories over the past few years. America (and not just its big cities) is full of wonderful students like the one you described. Unlike the normal stresses of teenage students, they live with this existential threat to their lives every day. Imagine the stress of finishing high school and having three options: the underground labor market, “return” to a country that is entirely alien to you, or military service. This is not quite the “land of opportunity” that made America great when generations past resettled here. Obama’s policy change is a small, temporary step in the direction of urgent immigration reform.

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