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 applyfor 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.
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.
 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.
 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.