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A Big, Small Step

| Jose Antonio Vargas

On the whole, yesterday's announcement from the Obama administration is a positive step for immigration reform.

Though while "positive," it is also a "big but small" step.

It's a big step because, as immigration advocates in Washington have told me, the Obama administration has done something unprecedented, engaging various parts of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to review 300,000 cases of undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings. A "joint committee" is set to review the cases and determine which ones are "low priority" and should be closed. ("Low priority," as outlined in the controversial June memo sent by John Morton, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, include those who are not criminals and have been in the country since childhood -- i.e., DREAM Act-eligible immigrants.) Once a case is closed, an individual is eligible to apply for work authorization. It's not a green card. It's not a path to legal residency. It's the kind of executive decision that the next administration, if Obama is not re-elected, could easily change. But it is something. And, most important, fewer people -- especially youth -- will be deported. That's a clear victory.

"No one can deny that this is a step in the right direction," Matias Ramos, a spokesperson for the the national youth-led grassroots group United We Dream, and a media fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, said in a phone interview last night. "But we'll see just how well it will be implemented."

The announcement is a small step, however, when considering the vastness and complexity of the problem. After all, most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country are not in deportation proceedings. They are English-speaking students in Alabama, which recently passed the country's most draconian anti-immigration law, requiring schools to ask about their students immigration status. (Exactly how this law will be enforced -- not to mention the added burden it places on the state's educators -- is anyone's guess.) They are hard-working migrant farmers in Georgia, which also passed an anti-immigrant measure, thereby losing millions of dollars from unpicked and spoiled produce. They are people from all walks of life, interwoven into every fabric of our society. This week's announcement by the White House does little, if anything, for them.

As soon as yesterday's announcement hit the Twittersphere -- where immigration advocates and DREAM activists commiserate and organize -- a flood of questions came pouring in. Wisely, the White House -- through Cecilia Munoz, who helped craft the new policy -- used its official Twitter account to address those questions, and the real-time virtual exchange underscored the real limitations of the new policy.

Like many undocumented immigrants whose lives are in limbo, I asked if one needs to be in deportation proceeding to get some kind of legal status. I, for one, am not in deportation proceeding. Munoz answered in two parts. First: "We're clearing out the caseload to make room for high priority cases & keeping low priorities out of the caseload." Second: "imp[ortant] to understand there's no affirmative process for people to apply for. For that we need imm[igration] reform in Congress."

Translation: The White House can only do so much. We need partners in Congress.

So the big fight continues, cheering every positive step, however small, along the way.

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