Recently, we have heard about the thousands of undocumented children who are fleeing their home countries within Central America to seek refuge from abuse, neglect, exploitation, civil war, the drug trade, and poverty. President Obama has acknowledged that children, who immigrated to America prior to the age of 16, should not be held responsible for failing to comply with international immigration laws. Instead, these children should receive a policy solution that addresses both the domestic and international issues surrounding their departure from their home countries.
Even as the number of unaccompanied children attempting to cross our borders has soared, it has become clear that Congress is unable to find a policy solution for this vulnerable population. In an attempt to address this issue, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives eligible undocumented students and military personnel the ability to apply for a temporary work permit and provides a temporary respite from deportation proceedings. If granted DACA status, undocumented students are eligible to apply for a social security number and a driver’s license. Although not a permanent policy solution, DACA provides basic humanitarian rights to these child immigrants, many of whom entered the United States too young to comprehend the consequences of crossing an international border without documentation.
Below are four simple amendments Obama can make to the DACA program:
1. The age limit excluding anyone older than 30 from applying should be eliminated and anyone who came to the U.S. prior to the age of 16 should be allowed to apply for the program. Whether you are 29 or 31, your story of being brought to America prior to the age of 16 does not change.
2. Amending the “continuous residency” requirement to allow for foreign travel after August 15, 2012 which is “brief, casual and innocent absence.” While establishing residency in order to gain rights is key, it is important to recognize that just as children did not choose to come to this country without documentation, they also do not choose when and where they travel. For example, disqualifying an individual from this program because they went to visit their dying grandparents in Guatemala is not in keeping with the original spirit of the policy.
3. Amending the renewal time of the program from two years to five years. The application and renewal process is cumbersome, costly, and represents an undue hardship for many undocumented students who are trying to complete their education and to military personnel serving our country. DACA applicants who cannot afford to continuously renew their status are at risk for deportation in the middle of their education or service to our country.
4. Creating a pathway to citizenship for approved DACA applicants. Adding language to the memorandum that creates a pathway to citizenship would provide DACA recipients hope for the future, remove anxiety and fear of deportation, and allow students and military members to focus on bettering themselves and our country.
Although DACA isn’t the ideal policy solution, these are tangible steps that can be taken to build a pathway to citizenship for these hard-working young adults who want nothing more than to live productive and fulfilling lives in this country. The Obama administration can use this last term to fulfill the promise made to Latino supporters and allies by, at a minimum, amending DACA. Some seem to have forgotten that America is a county of immigrants, but I know that you, Mr. President, remember this fact. You understand that families are seeking opportunities for a better tomorrow and are fleeing from civil war, exploitation, human trafficking, and the drug trade. Please use the power that the American people have granted you to alleviate some of the barriers faced by this population.
Powell is a daughter of Guatemalan and El Salvadoran immigrants and has family members who are both undocumented and documented. She is a master of social work, with a specialization in policy. She recently completed a Legislative Fellowship in the Texas House of Representatives.