The portents were plentiful, reaching back 30 years. Yet none but a clairvoyant could have predicted the aftermath on June 15, 1982 when the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe provided undocumented children with a guarantee of education through high school. Three decades to the day, a mixed-race president (whose Kenyan father was hounded out of the U.S. as a student by the immigration authorities for dating a white woman) would provide paperless kids with a tenuous legal status and the right to work.

It took a long time coming but the crystal ball became as vivid as a 3D film on an IMAX screen:

  • Undaunted by ten years of Congressional failure to enact legislation, DREAMers became activists, forming United We Dream and countless other grass roots initiatives. 
  • Over 90 law professorsscholarly colleagues in the immigration bar, and this blogger (herehereherehereherehere and there), provided the legal justification. 
  • A Pulitzer winning journalist and my client, 31-year-old Jose Antonio Vargas, revealed his undocumented status in a New York Times Magazine article, formed Define American and toured the country speaking out on the pressing need for a solution to the immigration problems of his youthful compatriots who, like him, are citizens except on paper. 
  • Vargas and fellow DREAMers — just hours before the fateful change was announced — appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and in this moving video:


Dismissing interruptions from an impudent, pull-up-the-gangplank journalist who immigrated from Ireland, and outcries from foes on the right (perhaps the most ironic from the author of the Bush torture memo assailing Obama’s executive overreach), President Obama finally projected a modicum of courage. In a Rose Garden address, he announced that giving deferred action and work permits to DREAMers in the exercise of executive discretion is the “right thing to do.”  

The task now falls to the Homeland Security Department’s immigration components, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to review the anticipated flood of cases for deferred-action eligibility and issue work permits to a population of DREAMers estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center at 1.4 million.

Are they up to the job?  

The challenge will be daunting.  No new money has been appropriated. Existing agency personnel cannot possibly receive training and handle the workload without a funding mechanism.

Will the applicant tide overwhelm available resources? Can the foreseeable backlogs be avoided? How do those who want deferred action get it, given that DHS has consistently maintained that this act of prosecutorial discretion cannot be requested but must be conferred?

Here’s what should be done:

  • ICE and USCIS should publish regulations and OMB should approve them on an expedited basis.  Many informal pronouncements have been issued since Friday. The White House released a transcription of the President’s Rose Garden announcement. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano published a memorandum to the heads of her component agencies, a press release and an FAQ. ICE issued an implementing memo. While helpful, these are no substitute for the publication of regulations that comply with the Administrative Procedure Act and a host of other federal laws requiring regulatory analyses and opportunities for public comment.  As Leland Beck urges in the Federal Regulations Advisor blog, “[w]ithout a regulation, the fragility of DHS’ policy position is clear – as a regulation may only be changed by another regulation, so a policy pronouncement may be changed by the whim of another policy pronouncement.”  Given that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has declined to say whether a President Romney would reverse the DHS actions on DREAMers, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should insist that ICE and USCIS engage in formal rulemaking but insure that the process is completed within the 60 days mandated by President Obama and Secretary Napalitano.  
  • USCIS should use the EAD application process as the platform for deferred action requests.  USCIS already issues Employment Application Documents (EADs) to persons granted deferred action under the authority of 8 CFR § 274.12(c)(14). This regulation states that a foreign citizen “who has been granted deferred action, . . . [can receive an EAD] if the alien establishes an economic necessity for employment.” The application is made on Form I-765 and requires a filing fee of $380 (although fee waivers are possible). Since Secretary Napolitano has announced the deferred-action criteria “to be considered” for persons in the defined DREAMer class, USCIS should treat the Secretary’s directions as a presumptive grant of deferred action as to those who submit evidence to show economic hardship and satisfy the deferred-action standards (entry to the U.S. before age 16, no older than 30, presence here for five years, presence on 6-15-2012, background checks, and absence of disqualifying criminal history).  By using the EAD application form to adjudicate deferred-action requests of persons never in removal proceedings, USCIS would streamline the process and receive $380 per application to pay for the cost of adjudication. In addition, ICE and USCIS should agree that USCIS — as the adjudication agency — should make a preliminary decision on deferred action, subject to an internal ICE veto, before approving or denying an EAD.
  • USCIS should deploy officers trained in adjustment of status to adjudicate the deferred action EAD applications.  USCIS has trained adjudicators on hand to determine the key eligibility criteria to qualify for DREAMer classification.  Comparable criteria, involving essentially the same analysis, apply under the green card application process known as adjustment of status for persons seeking forgiveness from ineligibility under Immigration and Nationality Act § 245(i). Given the unavailability or retrogression of most employment-based immigrant visa quotas that begins next month, these officers will likely have time on their hands quite soon.  Additional adjudicators from the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) — once trained on DREAMer eligibility adjudications — can be assigned to augment the adjustment adjudicators.  If needed, USCIS can also hire and train more adjudicators  — assuming that $380 per EAD application is sufficient.  If the current EAD filing fee is insufficient to cover the cost of deferred action EAD adjudications — a proposition I doubt given my insider sources with knowledge of filing-fee economics — USCIS can make its case by publishing a proposed rule seeking to justify a higher fee.
  • USCIS and ICE should apply the spirit of the new policy to deserving persons who fall outside its terms. There is no reason why the policy announced on Friday capped DREAMer eligibility below age 30 (other than that the age was reduced from less than 35 in the last failed Congressional effort).  Authority for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and the grant of deferred action still exists and can appropriately apply to many others because — as Secretary Napolitano stated in her memo to agency leaders: “Our Nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner. They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Indeed, many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways. Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.” 
  • Newly legal DREAMers, their supporters and the American people must push President Obama and Congress to enact Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR). As Fareed Zakaria has demonstrated in his compelling CNN special report, America’s success in the global economy hinges on CIR.  Like a balloon held under water, CIR must eventually emerge.  Possibly ephemeral deferred action status and evanescent work permits are insufficient.  They are revocable, and offer no path to citizenship and no route to full integration into American society.  The undocumented parents of citizens and DREAMers alike also need to be allowed out of the shadows.  We must reform a system that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls “national suicide.” 

As Martin Luther King, Jr., the quintessential Dreamer, reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  Let’s make sure our leaders are forced to shorten the arc and bend it quickly to reach its destination, equal justice under law.

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