Deportation advocates contend that the crackdown is making society safer. But a recent Syracuse University study showed that the majority of those deported each year have not committed any crime.
The average undocumented immigrant has lived in the country for 10 years and has established deep roots in the community, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. This is why the president can say most undocumented youths are "Americans ... in every single way except one — on paper."
But to make a real difference, these young people need something more than a memo; they need citizenship.
Obama's order requires the Department of Homeland Security to cease deportations of up to an estimated 1.4 million young people. To qualify, they must have come to the United States before age 16, have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record, and be enrolled in or have completed high school or military service. Those who qualify can apply for two-year, renewable work permits.
The policy defers deportation only for the duration of the permit; it does not remove the threat altogether. It also leaves out millions, including the parents and other relatives of the youths who qualify for the reprieve. As the president said, "This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix."
That's the problem. The limited scope of this change leaves multiple barriers and an uncertain future in place. The new rule is not a law, and it could be rescinded by any sitting president.
Without a path to citizenship, these youths will still be stuck in a second-class status that prevents them from getting financial support for college, denies them access to good jobs, excludes them from government programs and service, and keeps them in legal limbo.
This is why many undocumented youth activists — known as "Dreamers" — have pledged to continue their highly public advocacy until they achieve full legal status. Halting the deportations of young people is the first step in breaking with the failed immigration policies that have created the mess we're in. But more will be needed.
We need a new approach that keeps families together, offers the promise of a better life for immigrant youths and their families, and strengthens the social and economic well-being of communities across the country. We need to offer a path to citizenship.
Justin Akers Chacón is a professor of U.S. history and Chicano studies at San Diego City College. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.