DREAMers Celebrate Obama Announcement on Shift in Immigration Policy

Activists and Dreamers watch President Obama's speech Friday afternoon at the headquarters of the New York Immigration Coalition. (Photo: Justin Mitchell)

New York – President Barack Obama announced today that his administration will cease deporting undocumented immigrant youth who grew up in the United States and who meet a number of requirements. In a significant move, the government will also offer them a chance to apply for work permits. It’s an executive directive that bypasses Congress, which failed to enact the DREAM Act in 2010.

“It is the right thing to do,” the president said with uncharacteristic emotion, raising his voice over a heckler. ”We’re a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.” He asserted that it will make the country’s immigration system ”more fair, more efficient and more just.”

At the midtown headquarters of the New York Immigration Coalition, a group of activists and undocumented youth watched as President Obama made his announcement on live television from the White House Rose Garden.

“It’s a day of victory.  A day of big accomplishment, I think,” said Yohan Garcia, an undocumented student at Hunter College and a self-proclaimed ‘Dreamer.’ “A day where I can actually say that the American Dream, at least for me, has become a reality.”

The policy change has the potential to affect the lives of approximately 1.4 million undocumented youth, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Eligible immigrants are those who were brought to this country before the age of 16, have continuously resided in the U.S. for at least five years, are currently 30 years of age or younger, have clean legal records, are currently in school or have graduated from high school, and those who were honorably discharged from the military. (Read Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s complete memo here.)

The announcement was greeted with jubilation by the immigration activist community in New York City.

“We’re really overjoyed,” said Natalia Aristizabal of Make the Road New York.  ”We’ve been fighting for this since the DREAM Act got introduced in 2001.”

A group watches as President Barack Obama announces his new policy on immigration. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Chung-Wha Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, saw this as a game-changing moment, and a chance to clarify the president’s position.

“Politically, he is fundamentally changing the direction of the debate,” she told Fi2W.  ”The president had always supported the DREAM Act, the thing was what he was saying and what was actually happening on the ground were different.”

Hong saw the the president’s decision as a response to disappointment over his previous policies.

“He has shown the rest of the country that he not only believes in this, but is willing to act on this,” Hong said.  ”And I think that is going to restore faith in his leadership.”

But activists do not consider their work finished.  Under the new policy undocumented youth will still not have access to federal  student loans, and there is no path to citizenship for these youth or for their families. In his speech, the president admitted that this change is a “temporary stop-gap measure,” and he promised that as long as he is president he will not give up on the issue.

“Ultimately, Dreamers deserve a path to citizenship, so that they can be fully integrated into our economy and into our community,” Hong said.

Garcia agreed.

“This is not the whole package, but at least it’s something,” he said.  ”I think we still need to keep pushing for the whole package, for taking steps towards full legalization.”

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.