Chasing Down the DREAM

Have we finally struck a balance when it comes to immigration enforcement?

A new program intended to shield thousands of young, undocumented immigrants from deportation, and allow them to attend college and obtain better jobs, took effect last week. Meanwhile, a half-dozen immigrants with criminal records were recently charged in Western Washington federal court and will soon be kicked out of the country. Does this mean we’ve finally struck a balance in regard to immigration enforcement?

The new program is modeled after the DREAM Act, a measure stalled in Congress that proposes granting permanent residency to high school graduates or military veterans brought to the U.S. as children. President Obama took action on his own in June and announced that the same demographic will now qualify for work authorization and a two-year “deferment” from deportation.

The initiative has its flaws. First and foremost, if Obama suddenly has a change of heart or loses the upcoming election, thousands of immigrants who applied for reprieves will have turned over sensitive information that the government could potentially use against them. Secondly, the temporary fix means that even those who qualify (decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis) could be stuck in legal limbo in the coming years if the DREAM Act flounders in Congress. But despite the drawbacks, activist groups are elated at what appears to be a significant step forward in immigration policy reform.

“We’re thrilled,” says Charlie McAteer, spokesman for Seattle-based OneAmerica. “It is life-changing for thousands of youths in Washington state. It means their thoughts and dreams of going to school and pursing a certain career are now a reality.”

Using data from the Migration Policy Center, OneAmerica estimates that roughly 40,000 people in Washington will qualify for a deportation reprieve. That population ranks us in the top 10 nationwide for potential DREAM Act deferments. At a press conference last week, the organization shared the stories of more than 40 bright young immigrants who will soon be applying to the program.

“This is definitely a huge step for youth who came with their families pursuing the American dream,” McAteer says. “These are DREAMers who want to be accountants and lawyers and doctors and hopefully community organizers.”

But while the government is softening its policies for some, a look at the local federal court docket shows Homeland Security is still vigorously targeting others for deportation. In just the past two weeks, multiple people were charged with illegally reentering the country after they were previously deported. Such cases accounted for approximately 15 percent of the caseload in western Washington last year, and 35 percent of the caseload in federal courts across the country.

For the most part, this group is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the folks hoping to qualify for the DREAM Act. The recent candidates for deportation in western Washington have previously been convicted of second-degree murder, possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, and other crimes. (It is important to note that these cases are separate from the civil immigration actions handled by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which account for the vast majority of deportations.)

A typical case is that of 27-year-old Thomas Avila-Billalobos. He was caught by King County authorities serving a drug search warrant on July 10 at an apartment in Shoreline. Avila, who has previous convictions for drug dealing and being a felon in possession of a firearm, was deported once before, in 2008. After spending a stretch in local jail, Avila was transferred to a federal detention center in Tacoma, where he currently resides while his case is processed.

No matter what type of immigration reform is eventually passed by Congress, it’s highly unlikely that repeat offenders like Avila will ever qualify for citizenship, permanent residency, or any sort of reprieve. But at least the government is finally drawing a distinction between felonious drug dealers and upstanding youth who want nothing more than to earn a college degree, work for a living, and start a family.