Friday, June 15, was an exciting day. After years of advocacy on the part of individuals and organizations concerned about the plight of undocumented students, President Obama held a Rose Garden ceremony to announce temporary relief for young people who, though raised in the United States, have no legal immigration status because they were brought to the country illegally as children.

The policy change the president announced will allow undocumented young people who fit very specific criteria to apply for temporary relief from possible deportation under a little-known avenue called deferred action.

Deferred action is a policy of prioritization. It recognizes the need to focus Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforcement resources on the highest-priority cases, while, at the same time, taking into account compelling circumstances of individual immigrants that warrant putting immigration enforcement on hold for a defined period of time. Recognizing that these individuals must support themselves while in the United States, there is the option to apply for work authorization.

Deferred action isn’t a new policy. It’s been around since 1975, and was previously called the “non-priority” policy. It became better known to the public after an attorney who was working to stop the deportation of John Lennon (yes, the John Lennon of Beatles fame) submitted a Freedom of Information Act request.

DHS has experience with both prioritizing its workload and with the effective implementation of deferred action. But recent negative experience with a related effort, prosecutorial discretion, has elevated concern in the immigration community. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton issued a memorandum last summer that directed the agency to focus its resources on prosecuting and deporting violent criminal offenders. Under the new policy, the government was to use prosecutorial discretion in the application of the law and suspend the deportations of immigrants who had not been convicted of crimes or who fit within a broad range of criteria. A year later, the policy is widely viewed as a failure in the immigrant community, having been applied in only a small fraction of immigration cases. Mounting evidence suggests uneven application of, if not disregard for, the policy.

While DHS defends its implementation of prosecutorial discretion, the policy’s failure to provide noticeable relief to families and communities reeling from record-high number of deportations has created skepticism of promises of relief. DHS must apply lessons learned from this experience to the DREAMers. The early success in implementing deferred action will largely determine the number of young people who are willing to ask for this relief.

This is because stepping forward to identify yourself as an undocumented immigrant creates risks, not just for the potential DREAMers, but for their families. Many live in mixed-status families including both documented and undocumented relatives. The narrow scope of the deferred action relief means that many will have family members who do not qualify. These situations must be handled in a manner that reinforces the intent of the Administration’s new policy and avoids reinforcing a growing fear of government in immigrant communities.

It must be remembered that the class of people who will be asking for relief are blameless. They did nothing wrong. How DHS treats these young people will have an impact that will reverberate far beyond these individuals and their families. It is a test of our compassion and our sense of fairness. Let’s pass that test.

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