For all but the earliest years of their lives, 18-year-old Isamara Cortes Cruz and her 15-year-old sister, Fatima, wondered if any of their dreams might become real.
Isamara, a recent honors graduate from Olathe Northwest High School, wants to be a nurse. Fatima hopes to be a psychologist.
Yet, like 800,000 other young illegal immigrants in the country, the girls existed in a fearful limbo.
Then on Friday, President Barack Obama announced a federal directive that, effective immediately, lifted what he called “the shadow of deportation” over immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
If they were discovered, it was always possible Isamara and Fatima could get shipped to Mexico, a country that had not been home since their mother brought them over the border illegally at ages 9 and 6.
Even if they managed to avoid deportation and could afford to attend college, both girls knew they could never legally hold jobs in their fields, leaving them to lead lives of minimum-wage labor.
Obama’s new directive to the Department of Homeland Security abruptly changes that.
“It’s amazing,” Isamara said. “I will be able to have my own American Dream.”
Both Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are actively courting the Latino vote with only five months left to the 2012 presidential election. That immediately raised speculation about the president’s political motivation and Romney’s noncommittal response to the immigration directive.
In a short announcement made at the White House Rose Garden, Obama sought to try to strike a balance between compassion for young illegal immigrants while emphasizing what he painted as his administration’s strong record of border control and immigration enforcement.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” the president said. “This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix.”
In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is on pace this year to deport 400,000, a fact that has drawn sharp criticism from Latino leaders.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed that Hispanic voters preferred Obama 61 percent to 27 percent to Romney. But a Pew Hispanic Center poll taken in December also showed that most Latino voters were unhappy with the president’s deportation policies.
Romney said Friday that the status of younger illegal immigrants was important and should be addressed with legislation. He would not say if, should he win the White House, he would reverse Obama’s decision to stop deporting some who came to the U.S. as children.
“It’s an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term bias so they know what their future would be in this country,” Romney said.
His statement echoed the tempered reaction of Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is working on a bill that would allow some illegal immigrants a route to legal status.
Rubio, seen as a top contender for running mate on a Romney ticket, also referred to the decision as a short-term answer and criticized the policy as a legalistic shortcut.
Yet Friday’s announcement seemed geared to quell some of the criticism, even as it spurred rebukes from Republican congressional leaders who criticized the president’s move as circumventing Congress and U.S. immigration laws.
Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa called the president’s move “an affront to the process of representative government.”
In introducing the directive, the president first swiped at the Republican-led Congress for failing in 2010 to pass the DREAM — for Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors — Act. That legislation was designed to give young illegal immigrants of good moral standing a path to citizenship.
“Send me the DREAM Act,” Obama said Friday. “Put it on my desk, and I will sign it right away.”
The new directive to DHS establishes a “deferred action process.” It does not offer citizenship or permanent legal status.
Rather, illegal immigrants are now immune from deportation if they came to the United States under the age of 16 and are not over the age of 30. They must currently reside in the U.S. and have resided here for at least five years prior to the date of the directive.
They need to prove to be law-abiding citizens without felony convictions or significant misdemeanors or deemed a threat to national security or public safety. They must currently be in high school, have graduated from high school, have a high school equivalency degree or have been honorably discharged from either the U.S. Coast Guard or one of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Individuals who can document that they meet the criteria are not automatically approved. They are merely eligible. If it is granted (which is done on a case-by-case basis) the person becomes immune to deportation for two years, barring any other violations. That, in turn, makes them eligible to get a legal work card.
The two-year period can be renewed indefinitely.
Obama’s action falls short of what some immigrant advocates have sought from an overhaul of the immigration system, and some Hispanic leaders have expressed disappointment that he has not done more.
Unlike the DREAM Act, people who come forward will not obtain permanent lawful status. And without the force of legislation, the policy could be reversed in years to come. That could put those cleared by Friday’s announcement back in limbo.
But the new policy represents a sharp contrast to the tone the Republican presidential candidates took on the issue during the primary season. Romney opposed the DREAM Act and took a hard line against illegal immigration.
For young people such as Isamara and her sister, the directive does not solve all their problems.
It does not, for example, grant them the ability to obtain in-state tuition to public colleges and universities — that will be up to individual states — or allow them to obtain federal educational grants or loans. But it does offer a new avenue to legal work to help pay for education while students are enrolled in college or afterward in their chosen fields.
“We finally have a bigger chance,” Fatima said. “I’ve always wanted to be a psychologist. Now, because of this, I can actually go for it. I can actually achieve it.”
Gilbert Guerrero, founder and superintendant of Kansas City’s Alta Vista Charter School that serves the children of many illegal immigrants, choked back tears on Friday. His only regret was that the directive did not come during the school year. He wished he could have gotten on the school’s public address system and announced, “Now your dreams can come true.”
“I’m ecstatic,” he said.
He thinks that two prime benefits — freedom from fear of deportation and the chance to work legally before and after college — will do wonders to improve Latino high school retention rates. The rates are traditionally low, many believe, because students see little hope for much beyond unskilled work as long as they remain in the country illegally.
Eighteen-year-old Jorge Holguin of Kansas City graduated first in his class from Alta Vista in 2011 and attended Donnelly College last year. He came to the U.S. illegally at age 8 along with two older sisters.
“I see this as a new beginning,” he said.
In Washington, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri was a member of the House in 2010 when it passed the DREAM Act although he did not cast a vote at the time. With the news of Obama’s directive, he said, “All problems related to illegal immigration get easier to solve if we first fix the border.”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she would prefer to see Congress pass the DREAM Act.
“Children shouldn’t be punished for the sins of their parents,” she said. “I’ll be looking at the details of this announcement closely to ensure it isn’t a magnet for illegal immigration.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told the website ThinkProgress the policy violates a section of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act that restricts executive discretion in enforcing immigration laws.
Locally, as nationally, Latino leaders called the new directive momentous.
“This is going to affect so many kids,” said Cris Medina, executive director of Guadalupe Centers Inc. “The ramifications of this law will change their lives forever.”