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Past promises cast pall on Obama memo

Leaders from the MinKwon Center for Community Action praised the president's announcement of an immigration policy shift as a good start to reform, but recalled a failed sea change last year. Photo by Joe Anuta
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For many in Queens, the federal memo signed earlier this month that would save certain undocumented immigrants from deportation was reminiscent of a similar White House announcement last year that promised policy changes but did not deliver.

The borough reacted with tempered excitement when President Barack Obama announced the memo June 15. It was written by Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and instructed immigration officials to refrain from deporting illegal immigrants who came to the country when they were young and have been involved in the education system or the military, among other factors.

In theory, the policy shift would give undocumented residents relief from the fear of deportation and allow them to obtain work permits, provided they met a set of criteria.

But the memory of a similar document from spring 2011 and its ultimate ineffectiveness is still fresh for many in the Queens immigrant community.

A memo was written last year by John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and was designed to focus the department’s deportation policy on criminals and other high-risk undocumented immigrants while dropping deportation cases against low-risk immigrants, including students and young people who served in the military — much like Obama’s recent announcement.

The process in Morton’s 2011 memo was called “prosecutorial discretion” and, according to Steven Choi of the MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, it never made the jump from paper to reality.

“The implementation of that has been nothing short of a total failure,” Choi said.

According to numerous reports, less than 2 percent of the hundreds of thousands of cases considered for discretion were actually dropped.

The problem was that the policy direction provided under Morton was too vague, said Choi, whose community center closely follows immigration policy.

ICE was supposed to work with another federal agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to award some of the illegal immigrants whose cases had been dropped with work authorization. Currently, undocumented immigrants cannot legally work in most situations.

But that never happened, according to Choi.

Now there is another memo this year. It is not set to take effect until the fall to give ICE officials time to iron out the details.

While the 2012 memo offers a more concrete description of who is eligible — undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16, have been here for five years, are under the age of 30 and have not been convicted of a major crime — the nuts and bolts of how to apply have raised many questions.

Additionally, the policy could be reversed by another administration.

And that uncertainty is resonating in the community.

One undocumented Korean immigrant, who did not want to give her name for fear of jeopardizing her status, said she was skeptical that the changes would actually be put into practice.

“There have been so many events and so many times things like this have been said or been done,” she said. “But they just failed.”

The June announcement nonetheless was hailed by MinKwon and others in the community as a step in the right direction but short of the federal policy called the Dream Act, which would give young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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