Small Step Could Bring Big Relief to Young Undocumented Immigrants

President Biden on Tuesday announced an initiative that could be life-changing for hundreds of thousands of undocumented young adults, known as Dreamers, whose ability to live and work in the United States has long been tied to a temporary immigration program that has been on life support.

The new directive will enable many beneficiaries of an Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to swiftly receive employer-sponsored work visas for the first time. Eventually, the young immigrants could apply through their employers for green cards, or permanent lawful residency.

The new policy is one of two new immigration measures the administration announced on Tuesday. It means that a generation of young people who entered the country illegally as children will no longer be dependent on whether the DACA program, implemented as a temporary fix in 2012 and ensnared ever since in complex litigation, survives or dies.

For many, the program has allowed them to remain in the only country they really know. Sebastian Melendez, a 25-year-old registered nurse at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said his DACA status had enabled him to work alongside surgeons doing innovative gastrointestinal procedures, buy a car, rent an apartment and help his parents financially.

But as the program was alternately halted and renewed by the courts, he has faced a constant threat of possible deportation.

“It would be incredible to have this employment visa solution, rather than a status that has been dangling by a thread,” said Mr. Melendez, whose parents brought him to the United States when he was an infant.

Until now, immigrants enrolled in the DACA program could temporarily live and work in the United States, but their status was always precarious and they had no pathway to apply for permanent legal residence or citizenship.

The White House has now directed federal agencies to streamline the process for undocumented college graduates to obtain official work visas, a process that was largely unattainable for most of them up until now because they were living unlawfully in the country.

Employers have been wary of sponsoring undocumented immigrants for work visas because it required applicants to leave the United States to obtain a waiver from American consular officials in another country for legal readmission to the United States.

Historically, immigrants have been reluctant to try to apply for such visas because of the risk of being stranded abroad or denied re-entry.

But under the new guidance, consular officials abroad will be directed to try to issue the waiver within days or weeks, rather than months or years.

Details of who might qualify under the new program have not been laid out. Work visas could be limited in number and apportioned according to job categories.

“It is a small step within a complex immigration system that can smooth the way for many individuals to get a work visa more quickly,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration scholar at Cornell Law School.

At a ceremony on Tuesday in the East Room of the White House marking the 12th anniversary of DACA, Mr. Biden said that the new measures would “clarify and speed up work visas to help people, including Dreamers, who have graduated from U.S. colleges and U.S. universities land jobs in high-demand, high-skilled professions.”

Some businesses applauded the move.

“You cannot overstate the significance of having some hope of certainty and a pathway to stability for Dreamers,” said Jack Chen, associate general counsel for U.S. immigration at Microsoft.

The DACA program was born of former President Barack Obama’s frustration with the repeated, and failed, attempts by Congress to overhaul the broken immigration system. The Dreamers — brought to the United States illegally through no choice of their own — were often seen as the most sympathetic group of unauthorized immigrants by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Since 2012, the program has shielded from deportation and provided work permits to more than 800,000 undocumented people. Every two years, beneficiaries must pay to renew their participation.

Critics of the new measure said that it ran afoul of the stated intent of the program when it was created — to provide a temporary solution for undocumented youngsters.

“The program was defended as something that would not lead to permanent status,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “Now those guard rails are being tossed aside.”

For many young people who grew up in the United States, the ability to work legally without fear of deportation has been transformative. They have become nurses, teachers and doctors, and they have bought homes and paid taxes.

Many recipients were teenagers when the program was introduced. The oldest among them were in their early 30s, and they are in their early 40s today.

But for years, DACA beneficiaries have been on a roller-coaster ride as the program has been canceled, reinstated and partly rolled back by court rulings and administrative actions. The Trump administration tried to end it, and several states, led by Texas, have sued to overturn it.

The program remains mired in legal challenges that will most likely be decided by the Supreme Court. It has been closed to new applicants since July 2021 by court order, leaving some 480,000 younger immigrants ineligible. The number of active beneficiaries has dwindled to about 500,000, according to official data.

An untold number of beneficiaries have been caught in red tape, and lost their jobs when their renewals were not completed by the time their DACA work permits expired.

In one such case, Kai Martin, 40, a DACA recipient living in Washington, D.C., lost her job five months ago because her renewal was delayed. She finally received her new work authorization two weeks ago, but the nonprofit she was working for had not been able to hold the position for her.

“I lost my health benefits, I didn’t qualify for unemployment,” said Ms. Martin, whose mother brought her to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago when she was 11. “I was back to being an undocumented person with nothing.”

Ms. Martin, who has a master’s degree in public policy, said that she was excited about the new measure but was unsure whether it would apply to someone with her skill set. “Until the criteria are made clear, I am not certain that this will help me,” she said.

The concept of speeding up normal employment visas for Dreamers surfaced two years ago when Dan Berger, an immigration fellow at Cornell Law School, floated the idea among colleagues. He and others sent a memo to the White House in late 2022 outlining an idea they said would benefit both Dreamers and companies that wished to hire them.

Mr. Berger tested the waters by helping some employers, including two hospitals, sponsor work visas for DACA recipients under the old rules.

One of them was granted a waiver in just two weeks, while another is still waiting for the visa, more than seven months later.

“The administration was able to see that this could work but that it needed to take action to streamline the process,” said Mr. Berger. “That happened today.”

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