Immigration Reform & What It Means for Immigrants Now

Immigration Reform & What It Means for Immigrants Now

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., September 2012

President Obama's announcement to stop the deportation of some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as youths, sent ripples through many sectors of government from politicians to immigration law attorneys. What could this major political shift mean for young immigrants in America? The answer still looks fairly vague; however, the ramifications could reverberate at both the state and federal level. One thing is certain, the debate has only just begun.

Deferred Action Program vs. DREAM Act

The Deferred Action program is geared toward DREAMers, i.e. those who would fall under the guise of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was first introduced in Congress in 2001 but has yet to be passed.

The Deferred Action program halts deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants and grants temporary work permits to them based on a defined list of criteria. These include:

  • Those aged 30 and under who came to the U.S. before the age of 16;
  • Those who have lived in America for at least five years before June 15, 2012;
  • Those who were present in America on June 15, 2012;
  • Those who are in school or have graduated from high school or college, earned a general education development (GED) certificate or have been honorably discharged from the military; and finally,
  • Those who have a clean criminal record.


As the Deferred Action program provides for only a two-year moratorium on deportations of certain young immigrants, long-term action would have to come in the form of the DREAM Act itself, which must be passed by Congress. The act has already failed to pass twice.

One estimate puts the number of undocumented youths that are potentially affected by the Deferred Action program at 1.4 million. But, the President himself has noted that the program itself is “not a permanent fix.”

It is precisely the lack of a permanent fix that still makes the passage of the DREAM Act a necessity, according to immigration reform supporters such as Professor Barbara Hines, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

“[D]eferred action is only a temporary measure for two years and does not provide DREAMers with full legal rights,” Hines said. The DREAM Act, on the other hand, would provide “for permanent residency for immigrant students who complete college or serve in the military.”

At best, the Deferred Action program can be viewed as a stopgap measure, but that isn't stopping the opposing sides of the issue from trying to claim more ground in the court of public opinion. As first steps go, it wasn't necessarily a big one—but at the very least, it did garner some attention.

Deferred Action Effect on State Law

In states such as Georgia, which passed a law in 2011 prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrant workers, the President's order could effectively override state law without explicitly setting out to do so. Undocumented youths in Georgia who qualify for deferred action could obtain work permits, making them eligible to work legally in the state, which Jonathan Eoloff of the Latin American Association in Atlanta told Georgia Public Broadcasting “sort of negates the whole purpose of the state law.”

President Obama's policy might have little effect on state laws like Arizona, which permits police officers to question individuals regarding immigration status when stopped for alleged non-immigration violations. On the bright side for immigrants, Hines notes, because of President Obama's new immigration policy, most previously undocumented youths “will now have documentation if stopped by local authorities and questioned about their immigration status.”

What This Means for Undocumented Youth

Because this area of law is complicated and can be confusing, undocumented youths who may be affected by the President's Deferred Action program should consider all legal options regarding their current individual status. The National Immigration Law Center is an excellent resource on this and many other immigration-related issues.

Proving to be one of the most contentious issues in American politics, immigration reform will surely play a role not only in this year's election, but within the victor's upcoming administration as well. How these potential changes affect American businesses remain to be seen. However, it should make for some rather interesting political theater.