Decision has local activists with doubts

Jessica Hyejin Lee (right), 20, and Tania Chairez, 19, were arrested in May during a protest in Phila.
Jessica Hyejin Lee (right), 20, and Tania Chairez, 19, were arrested in May during a protest in Phila. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: June 17, 2012

The news that President Obama was relaxing deportation rules so many illegal immigrants who came to the country as children could stay and work should have been good news for Bryn Mawr College senior Jessica Hyejin Lee, who fills the bill exactly.

But she's not ready to break out the champagne.

"He already had promised a similar policy before and it just didn't do anything. Dreamers kept getting deported," Lee said, referring to undocumented youths who support the stalled national DREAM Act, which would offer a path to legal status for some two million young people.

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would no longer deport illegal immigrants such as Lee, who came with her family from South Korea when she was 12, and would allow them to apply for work permits if they meet certain criteria.

The policy change is expected to affect as many as 800,000 people. They must be no older than 30, have come to the United States before age 16, be currently enrolled in school, have graduated high school or served in the military, have been in the country for five consecutive years, and have a clean criminal record.

"It's not the real legislative change that [Obama] promised," said a disappointed Lee, 20, who shocked her school campus in the fall when she stood up in a packed auditorium and announced that she was undocumented.

The trust of millions was at stake last year when Obama enacted a policy of "prosecutorial discretion" toward young people who came here with their parents without papers, in which he promised to give a break to those who were law-abiding while speeding the exclusion of those who have committed crimes.

But according to activists, more than a million people have been deported during Obama's presidency, and the activists are afraid of getting stung a second time.

"That's why I don't believe anything he's saying, though I hope it's real this time," said Lee, who is from Southern California.

Her coming out was the start of a journey that led her to join DreamActivist Pennsylvania, lobby for Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges to make admission less restrictive for illegal students, get arrested in March in front of the Philadelphia Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, and work this summer for an immigration group in San Francisco helping to organize a sit-in in Obama's campaign office there.

The administration has been under pressure from those protesters and others who occupied and closed down several of the president's campaign offices, including in Cincinnati, Dearborn, Mich., and Oakland, Calif., over the last week.

Tania Chairez, 19, a University of Pennsylvania student who was arrested with Lee in Philadelphia and who was pictured on the cover of Time magazine for a story about undocumented youth this week, said she wasn't convinced the president was really serious about helping young illegals.

If during the next 60 days, deportation proceedings are dropped, "we'll take it as a good sign this is working," she said. "If not, we're going to call for action again."

As for Lee, she said DREAM activists want the president to sign an executive order guaranteeing their right to remain in this country.

"We hope he does this," she said, "otherwise, we won't stop occupying his offices."

Though her efforts to persuade Haverford to pass a need-blind admission policy for illegal students and Bryn Mawr to adopt other changes failed, she said many people had been very supportive.

"It's meant the world to me that I've come out," she said, "and I really appreciate the people who have supported me along the way."

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or

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