Praise for immigration fix mixed with doubt

Richmond Hill resident Wilian Mejia, 18, who has advocated for the passage of the DREAM Act with Make the Road New York, says he welcomes the federal government's memo granting relief to young immigrants. Photo by Christina Santucci
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President Barack Obama praised a federal memo released Friday that is set to give undocumented young people in Queens hope for a normal life, but drew cautious optimism from the borough and criticism from the county’s only Republican congressman.

The memo instructs the U.S. Department of Homeland Security not to initiate deportation proceedings against certain students and military veterans, who could then apply for work authorization.

“Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak,” Obama said in a speech at the White House last week.

The president hoped to lift the “shadow of deportation of these young people” with the stroke of his pen, but the news was received with skepticism by some in Queens, the nation’s most diverse county where 46 percent of the population is foreign-born.

A 19-year-old South Korean national, who did not want to be named for fear of exposing her illegal status, has been living in America since she was 7.

She was brought to Flushing by her mother and has nearly no memories of her home country, which she has never visited. She speaks English better than Korean and never thought she was different from other children until she entered high school.

“I was limited. There was a lot of things I couldn’t do that other kids could,” she said.

She could not get a job nor a driver’s license. Financial aid for college was out of the question. And the threat of deportation constantly hung over her head.

“It’s just something that you can’t forget about. You might for a moment, but it always comes back,” she said.

The deal is not a path to citizenship nor an amnesty program and would only apply to illegal immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 and are under 30, have been here for at least five years, have no criminal record and are currently a student, high school graduate or a military veteran, according to the federal memo.

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York, said the memo would be life-changing for the young people the organization serves.

“I think we feel like we have an ally in the White House. Someone who will stick his head out for what’s just, for what’s humane,” Archila said.

Richmond Hill resident Wilian Mejia, 18, who is originally from Honduras and has been working with Make the Road to pass the Dream Act, which would grant permanent residency to some undocumented youth, said the order will give him the freedom he does not feel he has now.

“Now I don’t feel scared,” Mejia said. “It’s just the beginning, but it’s something.”

Rishi Singh, a 26-year-old Richmond Hill resident and Trinidad native who is a member of Desis Rising Up, graduated as the valedictorian from his high school but his status has left him stuck in academia rather than being able to find a job. Singh said the passage of the order is bittersweet as it provides some relief for him but not necessarily for his family.

He said he also fears repercussions if he has to register with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the next president reverses the memo.

Singh’s uncertainty was echoed elsewhere in the borough since applicants will have to submit to background checks and give their fingerprints to the federal government to participate.

The MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing s applauded the president’s measure at a news conference Tuesday but highlighted the fact that the actual process — what forms and information will be required to participate — will not be decided for another 60 days.

But U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Middle Village) said the measure will establish an incentive for more illegal immigration and should be left to Congress, which has the power to pass comprehensive reform.

“The president has chosen to ignore the law and reverse his policy from just last year,” Turner said in a statement. “He has also created many more logistical and security issues for law enforcement officials across the country.”

Turner cited the fact that Obama said several times last year that he would not use an executive order to pass immigration reform.

But many of the borough’s Latino elected officials praised Obama’s executive order, although they said it was not enough and that the Dream Act was still needed.

“For many undocumented immigrants, America is the only country they know. In their hearts and minds they are American,” said state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst). “Sadly, Republicans either can’t, or choose not to, understand this.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 4:18 pm, June 21, 2012
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