Judith Huerta danced when she learned Friday that the Obama administration would stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.
Huerta, 21, of Oklahoma City, is one those children. Her family moved from Mexico when she was 2, and the United States is the only country she's ever called home.
“It's definitely brought hope to a lot of us here,” said Huerta, her voice cracking with emotion. “I was dancing earlier, and crying. Most people don't understand what this means for us — it means we have a better shot at a better future.”
The policy change was announced Friday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants nationally who have lived in fear of deportation. It also bypasses Congress and partially achieves goals of the DREAM Act, a long-sought plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United State illegally.
Members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation criticized the decision, saying it bypassed the legislative process and was politically motivated.
DREAM Act is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before turning 16 and are younger than 30. They would have to have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal record, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military.
More importantly, they can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. The policy will not lead toward citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation.
The policy will allow young people opportunities to pursue better jobs, start businesses and create new jobs, said Jorge Hernandez, executive director of Capitol Hill Main Street program.
“The whole Hispanic community is celebrating today,” Hernandez said. “This means the life parents hoped for their children when they came to the United States isn't limited or have a ceiling.”
Michael Brooks-Jimenez, an immigration attorney in Oklahoma City, said his telephone has been ringing nonstop since the announcement was made. He said he's researching the process and paperwork that will be required to obtain work permits for his younger clients that meet the new policy requirements.
Community meetings are being planned in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and possibly Clinton to pass on information and answer questions, he said.
“I think the policy took a lot of courage on the part of the president,” Brooks-Jimenez said. “Both sides, Republicans and Democrats, seemed to historically favor the DREAM Act, but it never made it to the floor for consideration.”
Lawmakers say policy is political
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore called the move transparently political.
“The appropriate way to deal with this issue is to propose legislation,” Cole said. “Instead, the president has chosen to act unilaterally and inappropriately.”
“This new immigration policy is another effort to receive votes during an election year, as it prevents the deportation of individuals who moved to the United States illegally,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa. “However, this comes as no great surprise, as it is not the first time this administration has openly shown contempt for our nation's immigration laws.”
U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said the president is granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants instead of putting American citizens back to work.
“Make no mistake about it, this is nothing but a political maneuver designed to appease his liberal base and get re-elected — but it's not going to work” Sullivan said. “This backdoor DREAM Act is against the will of the American people and is in direct violation of the rule of law.”
The move comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida.
Activist opposing Obama's deportation policies last week mounted a hunger strike at an Obama campaign headquarters in Denver, and other protests were planned this weekend.
Huerta has become in activist for the DREAM Act and a member of the Oklahoma City chapter supporting it. During her recent college graduation ceremony, she walked across the stage with the word “undocumented” on the back of her gown.
She and more than a dozen others fighting for the DREAM Act met Friday afternoon at La Oaxaquena bakery in south Oklahoma City to hear the president's news conference about the new policy.
“Right now, this is a relief — Band-Aid,” Huerta said. “There is still a lot to fight for.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report