Dare to DREAM: Obama’s new policy on undocumented youth

By Isamar Mendoza, Communications Intern

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Yesenia Hernandez is an undocumented 22 year old who was not able to go to college. “I couldn’t go to college because I couldn’t afford it,” she said, “but now the President’s new policy will give me a better chance to go back to school and make a better life for myself.”

Obama’s new policy is offering new opportunities to Hernandez and to over 800,000 young immigrants across the United States. However, since it is just a memo, it is hard to understand how it will be implemented across the nation.

Fred Tsao, the policy director at Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), explained, “We still do not know many of the details of the new policy or its implementation, the initiative is at least a strong step in the right direction.” The new policy is offering to help those who have come to the United States before the age of 16 and have completed their high school diploma or G.E.D.

On June 15th, the Obama administration also announced that it would suspend the deportation of DREAM students, and that these youths would be able to apply for “deferred action”, according to ICIRR. Obama’s new policy will protect these young immigrants for two years (with renewal every two years) and will let them apply for a work permit; however it does not help them get a green card or U.S. citizenship. Obama’s new policy will essentially protect undocumented youth from deportation and will enable them to live and work legally in the U.S..

ICIRR explains that to get “deferred action”, undocumented youth must meet five criteria:

•They must have come to the US before they turned 16;
•They must not yet be above the age of 30 and (for youths not in deportation proceedings) must be 15 or older;
•They must have continuously resided in the US since June 15, 2007, and must have been present in the US on June 15, 2012;
•They must currently be in school, have received a high school diploma or GED, or been honorably discharged from the US Armed Forces or the Coast Guard;
•They must not have been convicted of a felony, a “significant misdemeanor,” multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety. Anyone applying for deferred action would need to go through a criminal background check.

Still, deportation is not all these youths feared before the DREAM Act or Obama’s new policy were proposed. “For me, it has been a lot of money issues,” Hernandez explained, “I want to find a job that will give my family a better future.” Not only do immigrants usually work in low paying jobs, but they also work in dangerous conditions. And because they are at a risk of being deported, they keep silent and don’t complain. Tsao explained, “…Because the undocumented are not lawfully authorized to work, those jobs that are generally available tend to be low-paying and physically demanding, and a lack of status puts them under threat of being reported.”

Undocumented immigrants also do not have access to medical or financial help when they most need it; students who want to go to college cannot apply for financial aid, they have to look for private loans and scholarships. There is also a persistent fear of calling the police when they are in danger, especially if the perpetrator threatens them on calling immigration. Many undocumented immigrants also have to face discrimination and are dehumanized through labels or derogatory terms. “Labeling people as ‘illegal’ denies them their humanity and fuels hateful rhetoric and targeted attacks against them,” Tsao said. The hardships they face while they are here in the United States plays an important part on what the DREAM Act and the President’s new policy mean to these students; it means finally having some rights that their peers have.

Another issue undocumented immigrants face is negative and skewed portrayals of themselves in the media. “I feel that immigrants are shown to be lazy, ignorant and only interested in getting benefits from the government,” Hernandez said, “Really most work hard but at the end of the day they don’t have enough and are too embarrassed to ask for help.” There are few opportunities for immigrants to portray a good image on the news. “It’s still too easy for anti-immigrant groups, politicians, and media figures to tie the undocumented incorrectly to crime, poverty, and other social ills, or to describe them as fence-jumping invaders,” Tsao explained.

Not only do immigrants work hard to challenge media stereotypes, they also work together to establish strong communities. Many minority neighborhoods have to create non-profit organizations in order to help their community progress and become safer. A lot of communities also have to create programs to make their neighborhoods cleaner, since segregation and discrimination displaces immigrants and puts them in neighborhoods with factories and toxic waste. They are constantly working to better their image an s, but sometimes lack of resources and support get in the way of progress. But now that the DREAM Act has been announced, immigrants are given a better image and more room to grow.“The debate over the DREAM Act has helped shift media portrayals to show immigrant youths as smart, hardworking, and deeply committed,” Tsao explained.

The media also predominantly focuses on the Latino community when speaking about immigrants, but it is also important to know that immigrants come from all over the world. The United States is also home to immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. “Capturing the diversity of the undocumented and of immigrants generally, especially in a way that shows that some ‘look like us,’ might make the undocumented more sympathetic and make mainstream communities more receptive to reforms that will enable the undocumented to stay, work, and contribute,” Tsao said. The amount of racism and discrimination might diminish if people realize that it is not just a certain group of people that are coming in, but a broad range of people who a lot may not expect to be born out of the United States. There are a lot of different cultures, some that are also white, that are coming in.

Hernandez came to the United States when she was 4 years old and has not left the country since then. To her, the U.S. is her home and she wants to be able to have the same opportunities her peers do; all she needs is to be given a chance.

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