Obama Policy on Young Immigrants Creates 800,000 Dreams

Obama Opens Doors to Immigrants as Wider Reach Seen Small
Participants hold signs at a rally sponsored by United We Dream at the offices of the AFL-CIO in Washington D.C., on June 20, 2012. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Carolina Canizales worked her way through college in a series of odd jobs, from dog-walking to housecleaning, with hopes for a brighter future shadowed by concern over her status as an undocumented immigrant.

“I got used to being patient in the limbo that I’ve been living in,” said Canizales, 22, who says her family came illegally to Texas from Monterrey in northern Mexico when she was 10 years old. “I’ve always tried to be very optimistic.”

Now Canizales, who graduated in May with a communications degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, may have real underpinning for her enthusiasm. She is among at least 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who could benefit from President Barack Obama’s new deportation policy, which allows those eligible to stay in the U.S. and apply for temporary work permits. For Canizales, that could mean the ability to get a job that helps pay for graduate school.

The policy’s economic impact will probably be limited because the immigrants affected form a small part of the total workforce, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. It won’t produce big changes in growth or the unemployment rate, and concerns by policy critics that U.S. citizens will be displaced probably are unfounded, other labor-market analysts say.

The potential effect on those eligible is another story.

“By far the biggest impact will be on these individuals themselves,” Shierholz said. “They had very limited work opportunities but now they’ll be able to be fully integrated into the labor force.”

New Policy

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates there were 11.5 million people in the country illegally in January 2011. Obama’s new policy affects those who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and are no older than 30, have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record and are in school or have a high-school diploma or equivalent, or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces. It allows eligible immigrants to apply for a two-year deferral on deportation and a temporary work permit.

Homeland Security says about 800,000 people could come under a new set of rules that bypasses Congress and puts in place some of the goals of the “DREAM Act,” long-stalled legislation designed to give a pathway to citizenship for some younger undocumented immigrants.

Some non-government organizations that track immigration trends say the number who could benefit is larger because a pipeline of young people will become eligible later. The nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center in Washington estimates the number rises to 1.4 million if those younger than high-school age are included.

Political Punch

Obama’s policy may pack political punch as he seeks re-election in November. Recent polls show him gaining ground with Hispanic voters, who made up 9 percent of the 2008 electorate, as well as independent swing voters.

A June 15-18 Bloomberg News poll found that 64 percent of likely voters surveyed after Obama’s June 15 announcement said they agreed with the policy, while 30 percent said they disagreed. Independents backed the decision by better than a two-to-one margin. The poll of 734 U.S. adults likely to vote this fall had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

At the same time, the impact on the labor market, including the 8.2 percent unemployment rate, will be slight, economists said. That’s because the number of added workers is small relative to a labor force the government says has reached 155 million.

‘Marginal Effect’

“It will have a marginal effect on the workforce,” said Michael Fix, senior vice president at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, in Washington. “I can’t imagine it will have a big effect on gross domestic product or unemployment or any of the big metrics of economic strength.”

Neither is it likely to crowd out Americans looking for jobs, even though the jobless rate for the affected age group is higher than the national average.

Unemployment among those age 16 to 29 was 12.9 percent in May. That’s down from an average 14.1 percent in 2011, though up from an average 9.8 percent a decade ago, in 2002. As of May, about 33 million people in this age group were employed and about 4.9 million were out of work, Labor Department data show.

Many of the undocumented immigrants affected by the new policy probably are working in some capacity, Shierholz said. Those who aren’t may ease into the job market over months and even years.

‘Few People’

“It is so few people that it is not something that is going to squeeze someone out of a job,” said Michael Hayes, owner of Momentum Specialized Staffing, a recruiting and temporary staffing firm based in Phoenix. “Just because they come out with that, doesn’t mean they are all of a sudden legal.”

Still, some critics say the risks of young citizens losing opportunities to the labor-pool newcomers are real. Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an organization based in Arlington, Virginia, that opposes the deportation policy, said Obama just “gave a sharp elbow to unemployed Americans.”

“Most of these people that do have jobs probably are not in payroll jobs,” Beck said. “And now they can compete for payroll jobs, where they will be competing with more Americans.”

Undocumented immigrants affected by the policy will see a host of changes that could push them further up the income ladder and offer some modest benefits to government due to increased tax revenue, economists and immigration analysts said.

Young Immigrants

Fix said the benefits for young immigrants range from eligibility for paid internships to the ability to get a driver’s license, which allows for better job mobility. Most of all, he said, more young immigrants simply will see the reason to graduate from high school and college.

At a rally June 20 in Washington, some undocumented youth, or “dreamers” as they call themselves, made the case that Obama’s policy will add to the workforce and spur job growth in the country.

“A lot of dreamers like myself started their own companies and their own businesses,” said Cesar Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and managing director of a lobbying firm. “We actually hired U.S. citizens and are creating jobs.”

Max Ahmed, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Pakistan, said he struggles under current law with the lack of official U.S. identification papers such as a driver’s license, so he can’t board an airplane or drive a car. His family moved to New York from Massachusetts, where he said his illegal status barred him from going to the University of Massachusetts on a scholarship after he did well on statewide tests.

Obama’s Directive

Obama’s directive could mean “I can stay on board and work, and this helps me pay for school and plan for a future here,” said Ahmed, who says he came into the U.S. 12 years ago.

For others, benefits include an end to concerns that their illegal status will be discovered as they enter college or apply for their first job.

Yocasta Novas, 18, said she wasn’t aware of the implications of her illegal status until she was in the 11th grade at the International Leadership Charter High School in the Bronx and couldn’t apply to some colleges because she lacked a Social Security number. The Dominican Republic native, who says she arrived in the U.S. at age 2, was selected valedictorian of her class and accepted to Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system, with a full four-year scholarship for top grades and strong recommendations from a teacher and school principal.

The Obama decision “filled me with hope,” said Novas, who plans to thank the teachers and administrators who helped her get into college when she delivers her speech June 29. “I feel that I can share my classmates’ excitement at graduation. We all have our futures ahead of us now. I’m very excited for them and for myself.”

Temporary Nature

Ultimately, the temporary nature of the Obama administration’s new approach to young illegals may be its greatest problem. Beneficiaries get two-year work permits, then have to reapply.

What’s more, if presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the White House, he could reverse the policy, and employers may have to weigh that. Romney has criticized Obama’s decision to make the policy change through executive fiat and not legislation, but hasn’t commented about whether he would change the policy if he is elected in November.

“Only Congress can give permanent residency and eventual citizenship to undocumented immigrants and that is what the DREAM act would do,” said Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The most Obama can do is say that if these people come forward, I won’t deport you. It is temporary, and it is not a permanent solution.”

Canizales, the Texas graduate, says she realizes that the change “is an executive order that can be undone. It’s just a first step. I’m not afraid because I trust the Latino voters and the other voters who can speak for us will support us.”

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