Whitman students react to Obama immigration announcement

Rachel Alexander

File Photo: El Proyecto Voz Latina and OneAmerica Walla Walla, along with Whitman students and other community members, hold a vigil in support of the DREAM Act on December 7, 2010. Contributed by Ariel Ruiz.

President Obama announced on Friday, June 15 that his administration would stop deporting undocumented students in the U.S. who meet certain requirements. The policy change applies to undocumented immigrants who are under age 30, have been in the U.S. for at least five years, arrived before age 16, have no criminal record and are currently enrolled in high school, have a high school diploma or are serving in the military. These immigrants would be eligible to apply for a two-year “deferred action,” during which time they could not be deported. The new policy would also allow them to apply for temporary work visas.

As many Hispanic and Latino groups celebrated the news, Whitman’s undocumented student community reflected on what these changes would mean for them.

“Every time I read a news article or watched when Obama spoke, it would bring me to tears,” said senior Alejandro Fuentes, who is undocumented.

Junior Isabella Leon* said she was in a state of disbelief when she initially heard the news.

“I was beyond happy hearing what the president put forth because it’s great to hear that the president understands what students like me have to go through,” she said in an email.

For Leon, the decision means that she will be able to pursue internships and explore her career options.

“Before Obama announced this, I was worried. Not only [did] going to grad school sound like an impossibility because I can’t pay or work for it, but I know that for my future career I will be required to have an internship [or] some sort of training that involves being able to prove that I have the permission to work,” she said.

Leon added that the possibility of acquiring a temporary work visa would open doors and allow her to be more successful.

“Being able to work, no matter where I work, will allow me to have the possibility of paying for grad school. It opens up so many possibilities and, at the same time, it allows me to contribute to the United States. It makes me feel like I’m finally somebody, a person,” she said.

The decision doesn’t only affect undocumented students at Whitman; it will also impact their family members. Sophomore Ashley Hansack said she was very excited to hear the announcement, because her mother and sisters are undocumented.

“Even though all my sisters graduated from high school, only one went to college. She had to go to community college and then a state school because she did not receive any financial help,” she said in an email.

Though her sister has a B.A. in Psychology, she has been unable to get a job in the field without a Social Security number.

“It is appalling to see how hard she worked through high school and college and how she still has to work menial jobs to provide for herself,” Hansack said. “Obama’s new policy really lifts a burden off of my sisters and families. They are not taking this opportunity for granted.”

Obama’s executive order is in many ways similar to the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which Congress has failed to pass. First introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act applies to the same group of students who will be affected by President Obama’s executive order. However, there are several important differences between the two. While the DREAM Act would provide amnesty and a path to legal citizenship for the people it applies to, the President’s executive order grants only a temporary two-year deferral and does not provide a path to citizenship for the affected students.

Last year, ASWC passed an official resolution in support of the DREAM Act, and was also involved in encouraging the Board of Trustees to adopt a statement in support of undocumented students.

ASWC President Kayvon Behroozian, who voted for the ASWC resolution, said he supported Obama’s policy shift.

“I am fully in support of Obama’s decision,” he said. “What he has done right now is probably the best action that the president could take in response to this issue.”

Behroozian said that while action from Congress would be preferable, Obama’s decision would provide some degree of security for Whitman’s undocumented students by removing the immediate threat of deportation.

Leon said that while she was excited about the policy change, she was concerned that it was done by executive action, rather than an act of Congress, because it means the policy could be reversed by a future administration. This possibility added uncertainty to her life, and is why she chose to remain anonymous for this article.

Leon and Fuentes agreed that, while this was a good step, ultimately comprehensive immigration reform is needed to address the issues undocumented individuals face.

Fuentes added that watching the backlash against the president’s decision made him wish more American citizens would realize that undocumented immigrants are not criminals.

“We are people too. We consider America our home,” he said.

*Name has been changed