Opinion: Dream Relief Day was successful first step for young undocumented immigrants


Amy Reisen Freundlich

August 22, 2012

Thousands of young undocumented immigrants around the country were offered a life-changing opportunity Aug. 15, the first day applications were accepted for President Barack Obama's "deferred action" status ("Illegal immigrants view program as a first step — It provides protection while improving education, job opportunities," Aug. 16). This new administration policy will affect approximately 60,000 undocumented youths in New Jersey, who are 14 percent of the state's estimated undocumented population. Based on these figures, it is no surprise that Sen. Robert Menendez's (D-N.J.) Dream Relief Day at Union County College last Wednesday was a standing-room-only event. The young people who attended were all thinking the same thing: Will President Obama's "deferred action" policy be the answer to my dreams?

The key word is "dreams." Since 2001, various versions of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act have been floundering around the U.S. Senate and House. Passage of the act would provide a legal path to permanent residency for undocumented individuals who arrived in the United States as minors, graduated from U.S. high schools and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.

While the DREAM Act remains stalled in Congress, President Obama's "deferred action" is a viable alternative. It grants "deferred action status" to young people who might otherwise be candidates for deportation once they turn 18. With "deferred action" status, these students will be able to remain in the country legally and pursue higher education or serve in the military. However, this status is temporary and will not give these young people the same path to permanent residency that the DREAM Act would.

How will the "deferred action" policy impact New Jersey? New Jersey schools currently educate approximately 28,000 undocumented students in kindergarten through the 12th grade annually. Many came to the U.S. at a young age, attended our schools and absorbed American values. They are American in every sense except their citizenship. Sen. Menendez, a proponent of the DREAM Act and the "deferred action" policy, says, "These young people have been an economic resource that we cannot afford to waste." The economic figures support this statement. Given a chance, with "deferred action" status, undocumented students will be able to come out of the shadows. This means they will be more likely to work legally instead of under the table and pay into the Social Security and Medicare systems. This also gives them the opportunity to improve their education, get better jobs and pay more in taxes, as commensurate with their higher salaries. These students have legally attended the public school system and, unlike their native-born counterparts, cannot return the community's investment in them unless they are provided with a legal path of employment once they graduate.

The Dream Relief Day was a successful first step in bringing these young people out of the shadows. However, getting there was not easy. Marisol Conde Hernandez, the founder of the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition and an impassioned speaker at the Dream Relief Day event, emphasized that "this deferred action initiative did not come passively; it took action and organization by young people to get things to happen."

This dedication and advocacy must continue. One of the downsides of the deferred action status is that it is only an administration policy and not a law. When a new president comes into office, the policy could be set aside with the stroke of a pen, and those young people who had come forward would once again be vulnerable to deportation.

Sen. Menendez celebrated that these students were "on the path to making their dream come true." Shouldn't we do the same? We need to do better as a country. Passage of the DREAM Act will ensure that these individuals, who came to the United States at an early age and grew up in this country, are able to earn permanent legal status, contribute back to society and help build the American dream for future generations.

Amy Reisen Freundlich is the president of the American Jewish Committee's Metro New Jersey Region (ajc.org). AJC is a Jewish advocacy organization that engages in global advocacy to promote democratic values and the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel, and to ensure human rights for all.
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