Civil rights organizations expressed mixed responses to President Barack Obama’s oblique reference to the federal Dream Act, during his delivery of the State of the Union Jan. 24.
The president did not specifically call for the passage of the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented people who attend college or serve in the military to gain a path towards permanent residency in the U.S.
“Hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens,” said Obama.
“Many of them were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation,” he said.
“Let’s agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away,” said the president to applause.
A day later, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, introduced a bill in the House that would extend permanent residency only to undocumented youth who had served in the military. Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich immediately expressed support for Rivera’s proposed bill.
Indians are the fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants, noted a 2010 report from the Department of Homeland Security. Though they currently make up less than two percent of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., their numbers have increased 125 percent over the past eight years, noted the DHS report.
Although the number of undocumented students on campuses across the country is unknown, in California, Asians make up 18,000 of the total 41,000 undocumented student population. Immigrant organizations had mixed responses to the president’s speech.
Priya Murthy, policy director for South Asian Americans Leading Together, told India-West, “We’re glad to see that the president supports legislation which allows youth to stay in the country they grew up in.”
SAALT has seen an increasing number of cases of undocumented youth who have been in the U.S. for many years without committing a crime, but are still facing deportation, said Murthy.
Last year, Indian American Mandeep Chahal, a pre-med student at UC Davis, received an 11th hour stay of deportation, which came as she was boarding a plane to return to India. Chahal has been in the U.S. since she was six; she did not find out about her undocumented status until she was 15.
Murthy said SAALT would continue to support the Dream Act, though not Rivera’s version of the legislation. She added that Obama must use his administrative powers to prioritize the 300,000 pending deportation cases.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement director John Morton issued a memo June 17, 2011 outlining new guidelines that allow officials to use prosecutorial discretion in determining who to deport.
Morton advised federal agents to consider whether the potential deportee arrived as a child; the lack of criminal record; and pursuit of higher education, particularly for those who have graduated from high school in the U.S.
Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said in a press statement, “We regret the president had only a handful of full sentences to say about his intent to advance much-needed updates to our broken and inhumane immigration system.”
“The president did not address how a cruel and unfair system prescribes undocumented immigrants who work hard and contribute flat denials to a fair shot, fair share, and a family and country to love,” said Salas. “The president’s immigration policy remains at a stand-still while the massive and ever-expanding deportation machine is well oiled and humming along,” she said.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network also expressed its disappointment with Obama on the issue of immigration.
“He cannot offer the Dream Act to students and deportations to their parents,” said the organization in a press statement, adding, “He cannot pay lip-service to legalization while backing policies that criminalize immigrants.”
The NDLON is currently heading up a campaign to stop the deportation of Jai Shankar, a long-time resident of Washington, D.C. (see separate story).