In My Opinion

Next big step for Dreamers: citizenship

I liked studying the Dreamers’ hopeful faces — youth sweet youth — when they flashed across my screen. Young people holding huge banners at demonstrations around the country and locking arms at sit-ins at President Barack Obama’s campaign offices.

“Education Not Deportation.”

“Obama Stop Deporting Dreamers.”

“Right to Dream.”

You don’t often enough see youths this engaged in the political battlefield, this charged with can-do energy, this eloquent about what they want out of life. All for the opportunity to obtain legal status and become on paper what they’re already at heart: Americans.

I particularly liked seeing the Latin Americans among the Dreamers brought to the United States by parents when they were children — sometimes illegally across the border, other times legally with a tourist or work visa that they overstayed — being interviewed on Univisión. How ironic that, on the national television network that has covered their plight blow by blow, the Dreamers reveal most strikingly their Americanism: Many speak Spanish with choppy Anglicized accents.

Their English, however, is flawless.

That’s how acculturated they are to life in the United States, the only country they know as home.

“People are shocked to find out that I’m undocumented,” says Saúl Alemán, 19.

The Miami Dade College student, a double major in biology and psychology, was brought by his young Mexican parents across the border when he was three years old. The couple was fleeing violence and economic strife, and seeking a better life in “the openness” of El Norte. They found refuge in Homestead, where Saúl’s father irrigates crop fields and his mother drives far to Coral Gables to clean the house of a wealthy family.

Energetic young Dreamers fighting for their lives like Saúl, an activist in the non-profit Students Working for Equal Rights, got the best news they could possibly hope for Friday from President Obama — but not nearly all that they deserve.

By halting deportations and allowing them to apply for work permits, Obama provided, via executive action, long-overdue relief to youths who were under 16 when they arrived. Beneficiaries have to be under 30 and have no criminal record. From 800,000 to 1.4 million youths could benefit from the policy shift.

“These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama said at the Rose Garden ceremony where he made the announcement. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”

It shouldn’t have taken three-and-a-half years into his presidency for Obama to give much needed protection to these young people, and criticism, rightly so, has been harsh on this point.

No doubt the president’s decision is a move to win the Latino vote so critical in swing states like Florida and New Mexico.

His executive order is a political move. But so what?

Politically motivated or not, once again, as was the case with his endorsement of gay marriage, it’s good to see the president we elected take action on an issue that should have been resolved permanently by Congress in 2010 with the passage of the Dream Act, which Obama supported. It failed because this Congress, pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment, was intent on torpedoing everything supported by this president.

But let this be the kind of step now that changes the prevailing winds of the conversation on immigration.

Whatever the vehicle — a congressional Dream Act or presidential decree — these young people deserve to be included in the path toward U.S. citizenship provided to legal immigrants.

“We got the biggest thing we were hoping for [a reprieve from deportation], one of our key battles,” Saúl says. “And the end, we still want to become citizens.”

Imagine then their faces when they hold up their hands and pledge allegiance to the United States of America.

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