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It's an immigration winner

The U.S. program allowing young illegal immigrants to apply for work permits is an important move in the right direction. Lawmakers' claims leveled against it are unfounded.

August 19, 2012
  • Bolivians Gustavo Mariaca, left, and his brother Diego fill out paperwork under the "Dream Act" at the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C.
Bolivians Gustavo Mariaca, left, and his brother Diego fill out paperwork… (Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty…)

Last week featured a rare moment of encouragement in the nation's often tiresome and vindictive immigration debate: Thousands of young undocumented immigrants began applying for temporary permits that will allow them to live and work legally in the United States. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the result of a policy shift unveiled by the Obama administration in June, is a small but significant step that could help more than a million immigrant students and military veterans who were brought to this country illegally as children and who have lived in fear of deportation since.

But leave it to anti-immigration zealots to find a cloud in this silver lining. For them, any measure of relief for illegal immigrants is too much. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), for instance, used the week's events to suggest that the program amounted to amnesty and would cost taxpayers millions of dollars to implement.

Neither claim is true.

The program doesn't provide a path to legalization for those young immigrants, as the Dream Act, which failed to win approval in Congress, would have done. Instead, it grants a two-year respite from deportation for those who meet various conditions. They must be under 31, have come to the United States before they turned 16 and lived here for at least five years, and have no serious criminal convictions. They also must be enrolled in school, or have graduated from high school or served in theU.S. military. If their applications are granted, they will not be deported for two years, but they do not receive citizenship.

Nor does the program require taxpayers to foot the bill for the application process or for budget shortfalls. Eligible immigrants are required to pay $465 to cover the costs of processing their applications and the fee waivers granted to those living in foster care or acute poverty. Moreover, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency administering the program, is funded almost entirely by fees paid by immigrants seeking visas or green cards and employers sponsoring workers. Less than 4% of the agency's budget is funded by taxpayers. Smith and his fellow Republicans know that.

Finally, critics who worry that immigrants will file fraudulent applications should consider that those applying must provide documents provided by U.S. institutions, such as public schools and the military, as evidence. Surely, the Department of Homeland Security can handle that.

Smith is right about one thing, however. This stopgap measure isn't enough to address the country's immigration problems. Only Congress can do that.

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