From Los Angeles to Chicago to Miami, thousands of young immigrants lined up Wednesday to apply to legally remain in the country where they have grown up, gone to school and become part of their communities. The outpouring on the first day of a new program by the Obama administration reflects the necessity for a more reasonable immigration policy that avoids penalizing young people who had no choice in deciding whether to enter this country illegally with their families.
The policy change has important strings attached. Illegal immigrants can avoid deportation and remain in the United States if they arrived before they reached their 16th birthday and were born after June 15, 1981. They have to have been in this country at least five years, attend school or be high school graduates, or have served in the military. If they meet those requirements and have no criminal history, they can remain here legally for two years and will be permitted to work — and the permits can be renewed.
This is not amnesty or a path to citizenship. It also is not the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who had completed some college or served in the military. Congress has failed to pass the Dream Act, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has not released any details of his conceptual plan for legislation expected to resemble what the Obama administration initiated Wednesday. While Republicans complain the president is circumventing Congress, the gridlock cannot go on forever and the policy change is a step in the right direction.
The reality is that perhaps 1.2 million illegal immigrants, including 100,000 living in Florida, could immediately benefit from this sensible first step. These are young people who have obeyed the law since their parents or other adults brought them to this country. They have been educated in our schools, grown up in our neighborhoods and contributed to our communities. This is their home, and in many instances their native country is just as foreign to them as it would be to Americans born in the United States.
So on Wednesday, thousands of young people began rounding up their passports, birth certificates and school transcripts to prove their eligibility under the new policy to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. The paperwork to apply can be found on the website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (www.uscis.gov), and applicants must pay a $465 fee.
For families in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere, this humane change in federal policy should bring some security and strengthen ties to their neighborhoods. Of course, what is really needed is broader immigration reform to address 11 million illegal immigrants, promptly deport those who have broken the law while here, and provide a path to citizenship for those who are contributing to society. But like all big issues, that will have to wait until after the November election.