WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Friday announced a new policy under which most students who lack the documentation to reside legally in the United States can avoid deportation and may be able to receive the authorization to work in the United States.
The action falls far short of the federal DREAM Act  (for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would provide a path to citizenship for such students. But Obama's action removes the immediate threat of deportation, a threat that led many would-be students to avoid continuing their educations. Most advocates for immigrant students and officials at colleges that educate them praised the president's move, but some cautioned that the excitement over some forward progress for these students should not obscure the rights they still lack. And many Republican leaders -- who have blocked the DREAM Act in Congress -- attacked the president's move as politically motivated and/or illegal.
Under the new policy,  those who meet certain requirements will be eligible for renewable two-year deferments of any action that could lead to deportation, and would receive the right to apply for a work permit. To be eligible, the students would have to have been brought to the United States -- under the age of 16 -- by their parents. In addition, they would have to have lived in the United States for five years, either currently be in school or have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, not have committed a serious crime, and not be older than 30.
The threat of deportation has been so real to many students that word of Obama's action led to immediate celebrations  in cities like Los Angeles with many who will benefit from the policy. Groups such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities  and United We Dream  (a network of students seeking the right to stay in the United States) issued statements of praise. The latter called the president's actions "a momentous act of courage and a profoundly important step toward justice for immigrant youth."
Some experts, however, stressed that college students without documentation have won only the right to stay in the country and to apply for work authorization, with no guarantee of the latter.
Michael A. Olivas, director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston and author of the new book No Undocumented Child Left Behind  (New York University Press), said that the president's action was "both too much and too little." For right-wingers, he said, the president has gone too far and so they will work to reverse Obama. For those like himself who favor the DREAM Act, the action "doesn't go far enough."
Olivas noted that President Obama is using existing power (which has been used in other circumstances by other presidents) and that his actions do not assure any students work authorization. Without that right, Olivas said, students remain "in limbo," and may be earning degrees without the ability to pursue careers when they graduate.
The pledge not to deport is of course significant, Olivas said. He was among a group of law professors who recently wrote to President Obama urging him to be more forceful in using the government's discretion not to go after undocumented students. He noted that federal officials in the past have been very sparing in awarding work authorizations, so the proof of the new policy will be whether that changes. Paraphrasing President Reagan and citing the federal system for checking on work authorization, Olivas said that his attitude was "trust but e-verify."
Even with those caveats, Olivas said that the "sympathetic attention" of President Obama is helpful in drawing attention to a more long-term solution for those who have grown up in the United States and have such limited options in the country.
Luisa Havens, executive director of enrollment services and director of admissions and recruitment at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that her institution does not track undocumented students, but she believes that it typically has about 100-125 a semester.
The best part of the Obama administration's new policy, Havens said, is that it may help "reassure students that continuing a higher education is a possibility for them." At UTEP, Havens said that she and her colleagues "see a lot of students and parents who approach us and ask questions that makes us think they are undocumented. There is a lot of fear that they will be deported."
Some students may be reassured, but Havens said that others may not be, especially since the policy does not offer protections for students' family members who fear being noticed if their relatives become more public about their status in the United States. "There is a general level of distrust among parents and students, as they have lived in the shadows. It will be difficult for many of them to trust that things are going to work out," Havens said.
Two big issues remain, Havens said. One is the lack of certainty about work authorization. The other is lack of certainty about politics. "We are in an election year and someone else might be our president, who could take this back," she said. (On Friday, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president this year, criticized President Obama's immigration moves but did not say whether he would reverse them.  Previously, Romney has vowed that, as president, he would veto the DREAM Act,  which Obama has pledged to sign.)
One student at Texas-El Paso, who asked not to be identified because she does not have authorization to live in the United States, said that she viewed President Obama's actions as a good first step but not a solution. A junior biology major who plans to seek a doctorate in physical therapy, the student said that she worried about being able to eventually obtain state licensure without some way to have long-term residency status in the U.S.
It's easy to think, "What's the point if I can't get a job?" she said.
But the student said that after years of waiting for the federal DREAM Act to pass, and not seeing progress there, Friday's action gave her hope that a subsequent step could build on the president's new policy. "We need something more in the future," she said. "But this gives me hope and keeps me motivated."