Small Step Could Bring Big Relief to Young Undocumented Immigrants

As part of a package of new immigration measures, President Biden on Tuesday announced an initiative that could be life-changing for hundreds of thousands of undocumented young adults, known as Dreamers, whose ability to live and work in the United States has long been tied to a 12-year-old program that has been on life support.

The new directive will enable many beneficiaries of an Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to swiftly receive employer-sponsored work visas for the first time. Eventually, the young immigrants could apply through their employers for green cards, or permanent lawful residency.

The new policy means that a generation of young people who entered the country illegally as children will no longer be dependent on whether the DACA program, implemented as a temporary fix in 2012 and ensnared ever since in complex litigation, survives or dies.

For many, the program has allowed them to remain in the only country they really know. Sebastian Melendez, a 25-year-old registered nurse at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said his DACA status had enabled him to work alongside surgeons doing innovative gastrointestinal procedures, buy a car, rent an apartment and help his parents financially.

But as the program was alternately halted and renewed by the courts, he has faced a constant threat of possible deportation. He said the new initiative announced on Tuesday, available to DACA recipients who are college graduates, could provide real security.

“It would be incredible to have this employment visa solution, rather than a status that has been dangling by a thread,” said Mr. Melendez, whose parents brought him to the United States when he was an infant.

Until now, immigrants enrolled in the DACA program could temporarily live and work in the United States, but their status was always precarious and they had no pathway to apply for permanent legal residence or citizenship.

The White House has now directed federal agencies to streamline the process for undocumented college graduates to obtain official work visas, a process that was largely unattainable for most of them up until now because they were living unlawfully in the country.Employers have been wary of sponsoring undocumented immigrants for work visas because it required applicants to leave the United States to apply for and obtain a waiver from American consular officials in another country for legal readmission to the United States.

That document essentially forgives them for their illegal residency. If approved, the individual could then be allowed to re-enter the United States legally on a work visa.

Historically, immigrants have been reluctant to try to apply for such visas because of the risk of being stranded abroad or denied re-entry.

But under the new guidance, consular officials will be expected to issue the waiver within days or weeks, rather months or years.

“It is small step within a complex immigration system that can smooth the way for many individuals to get a work visa more quickly,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration scholar at Cornell Law School.

At a ceremony on Tuesday in the East Room of the White House marking the 12th anniversary of DACA, Mr. Biden said that the new measures would “clarify and speed up work visas to help people, including Dreamers, who have graduated from U.S. colleges and U.S. universities land jobs in high-demand, high-skilled professions.”

He said that the new opportunity for Dreamers, to go into effect this summer, would contribute to a strong economy and robust work force.

Some businesses applauded the move.

“You cannot overstate the significance of having some hope of certainty and a pathway to stability for Dreamers,” said Jack Chen, associate general counsel for U.S. immigration at Microsoft.

The Biden administration, he said, had taken “important actions” to transition DACA recipients to a “more certain immigration status.”

The DACA program was born of former President Barack Obama’s frustration with the repeated, and failed, attempts by Congress to adopt a more workable immigration system. The Dreamers — brought to the United States illegally through no choice of their own — were often seen as the most sympathetic group of unauthorized immigrants by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Since 2012, the program has shielded from deportation and provided work permits to more than 800,000 undocumented people. Every two years, beneficiaries must pay to renew their participation.

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