The Obama administration’s announcement that it will grant deportation relief and work visas to nearly 1 million dreamers is the culmination of a decade-long struggle by a committed group of activists.
Since 2002, when I served as commissioner of immigrant affairs in New York City, activity around the Dream Act has buoyed and deflated the hopes of young people of all ethnic backgrounds from around the country.
As a youth worker, a community organizer, an employer and a public official, I sat in rooms with South Asian, Mexican, Haitian, and African youth who explained how their ambitions would never be fully realized until they achieved full legal status in the U.S. And this week, in Time magazine, Emilio Vicente from Guatemala put it like this: “I want to be free so I can reach my full potential."
Emilio is one of 35 undocumented immigrants featured in the Time cover story, and as striking as their bravery is, so is their commitment to community work.
Many of these young people want to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers as a means of bringing critical services and justice to their communities. And some explicitly want to run for office in their state, like Mexican immigrant Erika Andiola who now lives in Arizona, or for Congress, like Manuel Bartsch, who moved to the U.S. from Germany.
And today, they are taking a giant step toward their goals, and toward making our country a stronger and more inclusive democracy.
To be clear, the administration’s decision is not a path to citizenship. Young immigrants affected by the policy will remain in a limbo, but one now devoid of fear and supported by the ability to seek gainful employment. The confidence and opportunity to continue their education is a gift to young Americans who have been in this country since their early years.
When I ran an organization for young South Asians, many young men and women expressed the futility of completing high school and going on to college only to hit a wall when they were ready to enter the job market. Research shows that a bachelor’s degree is important even in professions where it’s not required, and now, college will be a more attractive and rewarding path for all young Americans, regardless of their immigration background.
We need more of a guarantee for these young people and for other immigrants. A guarantee that they can stay with their families, a guarantee that work visas will not be tied to a place of employment, and a guarantee that their stay in the United States--the only home most of them have known--is permanent.
For now, though, in this election year, the Obama administration’s decision is a transformative one for today and the future. One million Americans, their families, and their communities, and our country stand to benefit.
Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project. She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.
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