How DREAMers Made the Deferred-Action Program a Reality

PHOTO: Gaby Perez, left, hands over all her paperwork to get guidance from immigration attorney Jose Penalosa, right, in Phoenix on August 15, 2012, for a new federal program, called Deferred Action, that would help some young undocumented immigrants avoi

Neidi Dominguez, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico as a child in 1997 and went on to graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with honors in 2008, has been at the forefront of the fight for immigration reform.

A vocal member of the DREAM Team Los Angeles, a youth-led, pro-immigrant organization, Dominguez, 26, and a handful of others began a campaign in March 2011 to bring some form of relief to undocumented youth in the country.

They got a glimmer of hope this June, when the U.S. government announced that it would grant two-year, renewable deportation reprieves to some undocumented youth beginning in August 2012.

Two months have passed since the program known as DACA was launched, and in that time, thousands of undocumented young people have submitted applications.

A barrage of numbers and dates surround the program: Applicants must be at least 15 when they apply, they must have lived in the country continuously since mid-2007, and it's estimated that more than one million young people might be impacted.

But how did a group who can't even vote insert themselves into the political process, and what does their future look like?

Call and Response

Dominguez and the DREAM Team Los Angeles took their campaign public last October, openly asking the White House for administrative relief for undocumented immigrant youth, and staging a sit-in at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutor's office in Los Angeles.

The group wanted to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano or Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, "people we knew the president was listening to," Dominguez said.

While that didn't happen exactly as they hoped, they did receive a letter from the Los Angeles regional director of ICE. In it, he outlined the administration's prosecutorial discretion policy -- the idea that some immigration cases, particularly those involving violent criminals and repeat offenders, should be prioritized over others, such as students -- and its commitment to look at each possible deportation case individually. The letter, said Dominguez, indicated that the administration would not be able to offer relief to large numbers of people.

DREAM Team Los Angeles disagreed, however, and began its own legal research to show that deferred action had been granted to groups in the past. For example, undocumented widows and widowers who would otherwise have been denied the right to remain in the country following the death of their citizen spouses have been granted deferred action.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) began promoting what Dominguez calls a "watered-down DREAM Act," and his team reached out to United We Dream, a network of immigration organizations such as the DREAM Team Los Angeles, saying he wanted to talk to DREAMers.

"Our response to him was we're going to work with whoever is going to help, and work with us to grant relief," Dominguez said.

The team was simultaneously pressuring the White House for administrative action.

But time passed, and with little movement on Rubio's act and no word from the White House, the team published a letter signed by about 100 law professors saying the president did have the legal authority to take administrative action in La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily newspaper. Then, in mid-June, undocumented youth began doing sit-ins inside Obama campaign offices across the country, from California to Florida.

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