Dreams Deferred

Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, PhD

Editor’s Note: Related to this blog posting, you can access the NASW-NYC special issue of Currents ”Focus on Immigrants in New York City” by clicking here.

As the country gears up for one of the most significant political battles -the 2012 presidential election, once again immigration reform has taken the spotlight away from the economy.  While the national landscape has been enthralled with the slow economic recovery which originated with the 2008 financial crisis, the Republican debates brought attention to the immigration issue when Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate shared his immigration plan based in part on self-deportation. Recently, in the midst of the presidential campaign, with the national unemployment rate at 8.2 percent and the African American unemployment at 14.4 percent, President Obama shifted the public’s attention once again to the immigration issue by introducing The Deferred Action program.  Giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt, it is important to note that the U.S. Congress has failed to move forward on two very significant immigration legislations this year-The Dream Act and The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  So, with Congress’ failure to pass these two legislations, the devastating economic condition and the high stakes of the Presidential elections, Americans (politicians, immigrants and citizens alike) welcomed the digression.

With that as the backdrop, on June 16th, 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order on immigration entitled The Deferred Action Program.  This policy puts a temporary stay (2 years to be exact) on the deportation of young people who through no fault of their own was brought to this country as children by their undocumented parents.  This is a small move in the right direction by the President to address the lack of action by Congress on The Dream Act and at the same time, it is life-changing for the young people, some 800,000 who are directly impacted by this policy, albeit temporary.


What is The Deferred Action program/policy?

  • If you are undocumented and traveled to the United States before the age of 16;
  • If you have attended school, or served in the military;
  • If it is determined that you pose no criminal or military threat to the country;
  • If you are currently 30 years old or younger.

Then you are eligible for a two year “stopgap” as the president stated. More importantly, you are eligible to work legitimately “on the books” without being deported for two years.  On the other hand, it is also important to note what this program isn’t.

What the Deferred Action Program/policy isn’t:

  • It isn’t amnesty or an official pardon;
  • It will not provide you with a green card;
  • It isn’t a path to citizenship.

To apply[1]for Deferred Action, you will need to meet a number of criteria, including the following:

  • Proof of identity;
  • Proof of arrival in the United States before age 16;
  • Proof of physical presence in the United States on June 15, 2012;
  • Proof of continuous residence in the United States for at least 5 years before June 15, 2012;
  • Proof of enrollment in school, or proof of graduation from high school, or proof of receipt of a General Equivalency Degree (GED) certificate, or proof of honorable discharge from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.[2]

Prior to the Deferred Action program many undocumented immigrants from all over the world lived in fear of deportation which has become an integral part of their everyday life because of the increased number of people being deported today.  These immigrants travel to the United States from countries all over the world.  While Mexico has the largest number of undocumented immigrants -7 million to be exact, which is significant considering that the overall number of undocumented immigrants have been estimated to be 12 million.  The immigrant community and particularly the undocumented immigrant community include people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, Central America, Canada and the Caribbean.

Regardless of the numbers, or the part of the world you’re from when it comes to being undocumented, you’re forced to live under the radar.  The life of an undocumented immigrant whether child or adult is a secret one.  You’re a member of an underground world built on fear and secrecy.  Your life is filled with trepidations at every turn-job searches, school enrollment and everyday activities that citizens and legal residents take for granted.  You have to be cautious every minute of your life and very afraid of sharing information with everyone around you including your neighbors, employers, friends and at times even your immediate family for fear that one day someone might say the wrong thing to the wrong person or if they get upset or angry with you they will report you to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Children of undocumented immigrants who are themselves undocumented are particularly anxious.  Their anxiety is heightened due to the stories that are reported in newspapers and the underground network community of raids in the workplace or people calling the Department of Homeland Security on the “undocumented”.  The fear is further exploited by ghastly employers, and those who like bullying or intimidating the vulnerable.  It is also not unusual for American born children of undocumented parents to harbor fear as well.  Oftentimes they are preoccupied with concerns for their parent.  These children often ruminate   “What if when I get home from school today my parents are not home because they are arrested and sent back to their country?”  Nonetheless, the Deferred Action program has brought many young adults temporary relief from living in the underground world of the undocumented although their concerns about their parents continue to be anxiety provoking.

The President’s Deferred Action program has left many people skeptical given the fact that it is a temporary fix to a long-standing issue.  For many in the immigrant community this program is viewed as a small, momentary step with an indeterminate future, while others view it as a meaningful step in the right direction with a hopeful and optimistic future.   Some of the young people that are directly impacted by this program experience it as a tremendous relief because for the first time since arriving in the United States, they can “come out” from the shadows of the underground world and be part of the mainstream American community.  For the next two years they can work, go to school and most of all not live in fear of deportation.  Or can they?

The fear of deportation has become even more eminent in recent years than before because of President Bush’s and Obama’s immigration strategies to address the issue of border control in the Southwestern part of the country.  According to a CNN report on October 18th, 2011, nearly 216, 698 or 55 percent of the people deported in 2010 were convicted of felonies and misdemeanors, which mean a total of over 400,000 people, were deported in 2010. Additionally, with the current draconian stop and frisk policies and practices that many states and cities throughout the U.S. have instituted, these policies and practices have further contributed to the heightened fear many immigrants currently experience. May 12, 2012 New York Times reported that the NYC Police Department stopped and frisked over 203,500 individuals between January and March of 2012, which is up from 183, 326 for the same period from the previous year.  The demographics of the astonishing number of people the NYC Police reported that were stopped, questioned and frisked for the first three months of 2012, 54 percent of them are Black, 33 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white and 3 percent Asian with males making up 93 percent (NY Times, May 12, 2012).  Given these numbers many immigrants who are people of color are especially apprehensive of being stopped not because they have committed a crime but because they are undocumented and can be deported.  Policies such as Secure Communities (shared data base between law enforcement and ICE) as well as having Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) located in prisons further exasperate the trust and confidence of the immigrant community.

On the other hand, the immigrant community welcomes a policy that holds the tide back, even one that is temporary.  It is perceived as a refreshing transformation on the part of President Obama particularly when he stated “stopping the deportation of young people is the “right thing to do”.  Yet even with the President’s endorsement, many in the immigrant community are not sure if they can trust this program.  Living with fear for long periods of time has led to a “healthy sense of paranoia” among immigrants, not unlike that of other vulnerable people in American society historically (i.e. experimental medical studies such as the Tuskegee experiment). Although immigrants recognize the many benefits of the Deferred Action program for a small number of people in the undocumented immigrant community, given the fact that it is temporary, specifically two years, and there is no promise for a more permanent solution, and given the precarious political climate we live in with Romney clearly stating he will not support The Deferred Action program, as well as Congress’ inability to pass legislations put forth by President Obama, some undocumented immigrants are concern that “coming out” from the shadows can further lead to more harm than good in the future-post 2014.

At the same time for some immigrants (documented and undocumented) the reason for this change in policy and its motivation- political or not, is not so important.  They are grateful for the small steps, hoping it will one day lead to more significant, comprehensive and permanent solutions, such as The Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for the same young people that the Deferred Action is trying to help.  Another significant bill that has been pending in congress is the reauthorization of The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  This law was enacted in 1994 and recognizes the menacing and dangerous nature of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and supports comprehensive, effective and cost saving ways of addressing these crimes.  The revised VAWA provides protection for Native American women and same sex relationships.  Consequently, the hesitancy by some immigrants to fully embrace the Deferred Action program emanates from the ambiguous messages the immigrant community have received from the American government based on past and present policies/practices.

It would be remiss of me not to mention a law that is currently in place that moves us forward as a nation on the immigration platform; that law is The Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) Act.  This Act is frequently underutilized by social workers in child welfare because many social workers particularly those working in foster care are unfamiliar with it.   SIJS was enacted for children under the age of 21 who are in the child welfare system to provide these children with the opportunity to become permanent residents. The reauthorization of this law included protection from human trafficking.  More information on this law can be retrieved from the Office of Children and Family Services website, specifically (11-OCFS-ADM-01, 2/7/11).

If the recent Supreme Court split decision on Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, is an indication of what the future holds, the legal resolution to the immigration problems facing this country, based on current trends signify a long tumultuous and at times ambiguous road ahead for immigrants and Americans alike.

[1] Application for the Deferred Action program begins August 15, 2012. For more information  regarding the Deferred Action application process and criteria go to www.uscis.gov.

[2] For further information on the Deferred Action program contact -The New York Immigration Coalition at 137-139 West 25th Street-12th Floor; New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-2227. Or visit their website www.thenyic.org.


Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, Ph. D., is a manager at NYC Administration for Children Services and has over 25 years of experience in public and private child welfare.

As an immigrant, Dr. Cummings is devoted to advocating and working on behalf of immigrant families.  Her graduate work focused on the exploration of Transnational Parenting for African Caribbean women from the English-Speaking Caribbean.  This body of work was complied in a book entitled: The Long Goodbye:  Challenges of Transnational Parenting, which was published in 2009. It details Dr. Cummings’ research and analysis of the impact of transnational parenting on both children and parents.

Dr. Cummings particularly enjoys staff development and teaching. She has worked as an adjunct professor for several years at Metropolitan College; currently, she teaches a class on the immigrant experience at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in which she highlights the impact of race, gender and the economy on various immigrant group experiences in this country.

Dr. Cummings has also been in the forefront of the exploration of the impact of race and disproportionality in child welfare. She is the co-chair of the Disproportionality in Child Welfare which is a subcommittee of the New York City Social Work Consortium.  This committee has facilitated symposiums on racial dispropotionality and disparity for MSW students that have been held at various Schools of Social Work.   She is also a member of the ACS Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Diversity.

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11 Responses to Dreams Deferred

  1. Sharon says:

    In my opinion, the immigration laws reflect the trauma response of a nation in peril. Fear and feelings of scarcity emerge as an adaptive response to uncontrolled violence at home and abroad. Bias, class differences and race prejudice also fuel the sense that immigrants and people of color threaten the safety and security of law abiding American citizens. Thanks to Christina for raising the issue of immigration and sharing valuable information.

  2. ted@tedg.us says:

    Your suggestion that the presidents plan is a “temporary fix to a long-standing issue,” could well be applied to a number of current problems that have enormous social implications. The same might be said for the current laws that are attempting to make medical care more accessible to a larger group of non indigent individuals. As a member of a generation who, to a large degree, believe strongly in social justice, I have become increasingly frustrated and jaded by what I see as the presentation of inadequate Policies put forth with the hope that an opposing group will not prevent its application. While not a new theme by any means there is no harm in pointing out that the relationship between politics and social reform is nothing less than toxic.

  3. Marianela says:

    Much of the public discourse that is focused on defining an adequate American response to undocumented immigration is underpinned by xenophobia, nativism, and racial prejudices. The danger in stating the obvious lies in missing the critical inferences drawn from the sort of nuanced analysis that works such as that published by Dr. Cummings can bring to bear. The intractability of illegal immigration within the American social landscape is not all that coincidental. Illegal immigration as such is an intractable issue because immigration policy (who is allowed to enter the country legally) and immigrant policy (what and when, if any benefits legal immigrants are allowed to receive) have long been a convenient multipurpose tool. Immigration policy has been used as an instrument of foreign affairs following America’s involvement in wars abroad; an instrument of the local economy used to assist specific farming interest or union-busting purposes; a political tool used to either transform the American electorate; create a wedge issue; and/or distract the conversation as to keep the American people from posing critical questions. If enthusiastic, “Card Carrying members” of the Tea Party are busy ruminating about how illegal immigrants have usurp their rightful place in the job market, they are not likely to wonder why supply-side economics have yet to trickle enough benefits as to strengthen America’s middle class. Dr. Cummings’ blog creates a much needed space for intelligent discussion on the issue.

  4. Christiana Best-Cummings says:

    Some of the goals of writing this blog are to challenge people while informing them about policies and issues they wouldn’t ordinarily be educated on and at the same time create a space for expressing one’s thoughts. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Michael J Smith, Professor Emeritus Hunter College School of Social Work says:

    Christiana has done an outstanding job of presenting the current state of affairs in relation to imigrant children. What happens nationally and in Arizona clearly has an effect on them. Remember too that they are developing and determining who they are while they are experiencing all these outside pressures. This paper is a real contribution.

  6. Nora OBrien-Suric, PhD says:

    Dear Dr. Cummings, thank you for this great blog, very well written and informative. It is important that you are using your voice and intellectual powers to bring more awareness to this issue that touches many many lives. Immigration is the foundation of the USA, how we address it legally and how we treat immigrants reflects on all of us as a nation.

  7. Henry Ilian says:

    The article does an excellent job of highlighting the uncertainty of the position that young people find themselves in when deciding to take advantage of the program. I appreciate its thoroughness in its description of the situation of people who are undocumented.

    I wish we could somehow get away from the notion that there can be “illegal people.”

  8. Ancil says:

    Wonderful article. Very Informative. Immigration has long been used as a wedge issue and with the election of President Obama, the most fringe of elements in our country has been given license to freely express their xenophobic beliefs without fear of rebuttal or correction as our elected republican colleagues have joined the madness. In recent months, there has also been discussion of only admitting the brightest and the best into the country, persons who can “contribute” to the growth of America (read no Blacks or Latinos allowed). Obviously, this premise is far removed from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty which espouses “Give me your tired, your poor,…masses, yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

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