Commentary: Immigration debate leaves out the human element

Protestors rally against Arizona's immigration restrictions
Protestors rally against Arizona's immigration restrictions Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

They've moved into a different kind of limbo. Deportations have been deferred. Instead, undocumented students nabbed by ICE get a year's reprieve.

They ought to be issued passports stamped in the Republic of Netherworld.

Student reprieves come despite a deportation frenzy by the Obama administration, which booted out some 389,000 undocumented immigrants last year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement won't call this an official change in immigration policy. Mindful of an anti-immigrant backlash, ICE insists this is no more than a reordering of priorities. The agency wants to focus its resources on jettisoning illegal immigrants who have criminal records.

At least, deferments put a temporary stop to a depressing string of news stories featuring sympathetic students, good kids, raised and educated in the United States, faced with deportation to places beyond their memories.

This may be the closest we get to immigration reform in 2010. While the Tea Party reaches of our polarized country rail about job-stealing illegal immigrants, others are deeply bothered by the arrest of students like Leslie Cocche, a 19-year-old criminal-justice major at Miami-Dade College stopped by an ICE agent at the Fort Lauderdale Tri-Rail station in March, tossed into jail for 11 days and faced with deportation. They struggle to find the economic logic behind the detention of Eric Balderas, the 19-year-old Harvard microbiology student, busted in June and faced with deportation to Mexico.

Both students were rescued by reprieves. Other undocumented students are not exactly dancing in the streets. "We're still in limbo," said Gaby Pacheco, one of four young students, three of them undocumented, who walked a thousand miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., earlier this year to protest the deportation of students who, like her, had nothing to do with their parents' decision to raise them in the United States. "It [a reprieve] doesn't give students anything safe. It doesn't give them anything concrete," Pacheco said.

Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the deferments are apparently issued "on a case-by-case basis," not through a blanket policy. She hopes students aren't planning to get themselves arrested by ICE to take advantage of an amorphous new reprieve policy. "For these kids, this sounds like great news," she said. "I'm not necessarily sure it is."

Pacheco and other undocumented students have been campaigning for congressional passage of the Dream Act, which would grant law-abiding undocumented immigrants green cards and a chance at college. The Dream Act makes economic sense -- America has already paid to educate these kids, many of them from kindergarten through high school. If nothing else, it seems financially foolish to banish that investment -- $90,000 to $100,000 or more for each student -- to Mexico or Brazil or Colombia.

"I think the Dream Act could pass this year," Pacheco insisted. But in an election year aflame with anti-immigrant sentiment, just the cessation of student deportations will be characterized by the Fox News set as a radical maneuver by Obama around federal law.

An one-year deferment will get these kids past this election year's xenophobia. Maybe, in 2011, when the mean talk subsides, we'll find a way to get them out of limbo.

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