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Back in May, the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia co-hosted a presentation “What the Dream Act Means for Immigrant Families,” with Just Neighbors at Marymount University’s NonProfit Center in Reston, Virginia. Dominique Poirier, Just Neighbors’ immigration attorney, gave a clear and thorough presentation about the federal and Virginia state proposals for the Dream Act, and how this issue influences the real lives of immigrants in our communities and the nonprofits who serve them.
This past June, I attended an informative training on the Obama Administration’s New “Deferred Action” Policy for DREAMers, which was organized by the following institutions: Hogar Immigrant Services – Catholic Charities; Legal Aid Justice Center – Immigrant Advocacy Program; Ayuda; Just Neighbors: Immigration Legal Services; Hispanics Against Child Abuse and Neglect (HACAN/STAR); and the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO).
This is the first of a two-part blog LCNV will present in an effort to share the nuts and bolts of U.S. policy as it relates to undocumented immigrants, and describe the potential benefits and challenges of the Deferred Action Policy as it may relate to people in and around the Literacy Council’s community.
BACKGROUND on U.S. Immigration Policy: The Facts Defining Immigrants
Legally, there is no such person as an “illegal immigrant”. People in the U.S. can only fall into one of the following 3 legal terms: “U.S. Citizen”, “Lawful Permanent Resident” (Green Card holder), or “Alien”. Any person whose presence in the U.S. is undocumented is “unlawfully present”, or an “unlawfully present Alien”. The term “undocumented” can be considered synonymous with unlawfully present.
An “unlawfully present Alien” may have entered the U.S. legally or illegally. Those who entered legally, with a time-bound visa, and remained in the U.S. after their visas expired are considered “overstays”. Such individuals may include tourists, students, diplomats, and nannies, among others. Those who entered the U.S. without inspection are considered to have “Entry without Inspection (EWI)”. Any person who has been in the U.S. “illegally” (overstay or EWI) for over a year and then leaves will be barred from returning to the U.S. for10 years.
The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act is the basic body of America’s immigration law, which prioritizes immigration and naturalization based on employable skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents.
The gross majority (68%) of Green Cards issued by the U.S. are for individuals who are sponsored by a family member who is a lawful permanent resident or citizen. Only 13% of Green Cards that are issued are employment-based sponsorship. Less than 20% of Green Cards that are issued are for individuals who fall within unique categories, including self-sponsorship, refugees, asylees, and abused minors.
A person’s sponsorship rights are defined by their status.
U.S. Citizens can petition for their immediate relatives to receive immigrant visas. “Immediate relatives” ONLY include: parents, spouses, and unmarried children who are under the age of 21. Generally, these petitions are processed relatively quickly (within 3-4 years). U.S. Citizens can also petition for sons and daughters who are over the age of 21, although this process often entails a much longer wait. The wait to sponsor children over the age of 21 can last 7 to 20 years, depending on their marital status and country of origin. The process to sponsor siblings can take even longer – from 12-23 years.
Lawful Permanent Residents can petition for their spouses (a 3-5 year process) or their unmarried children (an 8-11+ year process), depending on their marital status and country of origin. Green Card Holders cannot petition for their parents or siblings.
Unlawfully present Aliens do not have any sponsorship rights. Overstays are the only group of unlawfully present Aliens who might be able to stay in the U.S. legally IF they have an immediate relative sponsoring them.
EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHILDREN OF UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS:
A brief history and description of the DREAM Act
Undocumented youth who grow up in America and often don’t know of a life anywhere else may graduate from high school and find themselves with no further opportunities. They cannot work or go to college, and especially since the events of 9-11, they cannot even get a driver’s license.*
In the past, the U.S. has granted amnesty to populations of undocumented aliens. The last full amnesty was issued by President Reagan, who granted any unlawfully present alien who has been continuously present in the U.S. since 1982 the right to self-petition for immigration status. Under the Clinton administration, a partial amnesty was issued, granting unlawfully present aliens the right to apply “if they had someone to petition for them” and paid a fine. In 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced and failed. Over the years, the DREAM Act has gone through various iterations, weakening and reducing the eligibility and rights for undocumented youth each time.
If the current iteration of the DREAM Act were to pass, unlawfully present individuals who meet the following qualifications may receive conditional (5 years) permanent residency. These criteria include:
- “Good moral character”
- Graduated from U.S. high schools
- Arrived in the U.S. when they were a minor
- Lived in the U.S. continuously for at least 5 years prior to the bill’s enactment
If, within that 5-year period, the qualifying individuals attend an institution of higher education or serve in the military, they may qualify for permanent residency and apply for a Green Card.
Current estimates suggest that undocumented alien minors make up about 11% of the unlawfully present aliens in the U.S. Of that total, only 2.1% are estimated to qualify for the conditional permanent residency status. Yet, this meager bill continues to fail in Congress.
Meanwhile, a “pro-immigrant” bill that has recently passed expands medicaid coverage to resident pregnant women (because their children will be U.S.-born citizens). More recently, on June 15th, 2012, in the midst of U.S.’ record high deportation rate, the Obama administration announced that the President would use his executive authority to grant “Deferred Action” status to the class of young adults and minors who would have likely benefitted from the DREAM Act. While this status is not a path to citizenship or permanent residency, it may provide a temporary respite from fear of deportation and education and work opportunities. The next post will elaborate on the details of this Deferred Action Policy.
In spite of these recent steps to improve the situation for undocumented youth in America, a long road lies ahead of our achieving a real DREAM Act!
What can you do to promote the DREAM Act in your neighborhood?
Get involved with local advocacy efforts, like the recent march in Maryland, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants, and Dreamactivist Virginia. It is particularly important to reach those members of Virginia’s Senate who are not already in support of the DREAM Act. Get the message to your representatives that it’s time for DREAMers to have the opportunity of citizenship in the country they already consider their own, despite missing a piece of paper.
*A 1982 Supreme Court Ruling (Plyler v. Doe) decided that children of undocumented aliens can attend public K-12 school, there is no federal law that either prohibits or promises post-secondary education for these children. However, two federal laws make it essentially impossible for undocumented youth to attend post-secondary education. These are the Higher Education Act of 1965, which requires applicants for federal financial aid be legal U.S. residents, and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which states that an unlawfully present alien is not eligible for state residency and is therefore not eligible for any post-secondary education benefit. Eleven states, including Maryland, have gotten around the IIRIRA by redefining “residency” and legalizing in-state tuition for undocumented youth.