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How Obama’s New Immigration Policy Might Leave Out Some DREAM Activists—And Why Some of Them Don’t Care

President Obama’s recent announcement that his administration would “defer action” against undocumented immigrants was met with mostly positive reactions from immigration rights advocates. The new regulations will enable people under the age of 30 who were brought to the country before the age of 16 to qualify for a work permit, though not a path to citizenship, provided that they meet certain requirements. But now it seems like tactics employed by some of the immigrants who have fought hardest for legal status may end up disqualifying them from reaping the very benefits they fought for. 

Obama’s new policy tracks in most ways with the DREAM Act. But that includes the conditions it sets for those immigrants who hope to qualify for legal relief: Those who have compiled a criminal record that includes at least three misdemeanors are not eligible. 

The problem is that, starting two years ago, a number of so-called DREAMers were in such despair over the legislation’s stalled progress in Congress that they felt they had no choice but to make a concerted turn towards civil disobedience in order to show what it means to be “undocumented and unafraid.” In other words, in the interest of furthering their cause, they intentionally sought to get arrested and charged with a crime. Now, their activism may be held against them when they seek the benefits they fought for.  

One activist, Jesus Barrios, a 22-year-old originally from Mexico, told me that he had two misdemeanors under California law for driving without a license before he began advocating against the Secure Communities program and for the DREAM Act. Since then, he says he’s gotten four more for his activism. He told me he feels in a state of “limbo,” unsure of the effect these will have on his application but hopeful that his activism (which he partially credits for the DHS memo) will be rewarded, not punished. He plans to apply for deferred action, noting that ICE has ultimate discretion in determining how to apply the relevant regulations.

There’s no telling whether ICE will actually look the other way when it is dealing with an application that involves three or more misdemeanors. But the agency certainly has some flexibility in interpreting the severity of those offenses, especially given that misdemeanor offenses vary state-by-state. (Indeed, Barrios’s driving violations wouldn’t, at first glance, seem to approach what the Department of Homeland Security deems “significant.”)

But other immigrants eligible under the new policy are not worried about their potential disqualification under the new regulations. Mohammad Abdollahi, a long-time leader in the DREAMer movement—he participated in the initial act of DREAM-related civil disobedience in 2010, a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s Arizona office—tells me that he’s not done with civil disobedience.

Abdollahi, who is originally from Iran, believes that if undocumented immigrants “push the boundaries” of the deferred action memorandum, they can show that “if we challenge the system, the system will fall apart.” His plan is to continue his advocacy for undocumented youth, which includes participating in actions the goals of which are to get arrested. When he presents his application to DHS, he has no plans to make an effort to hide the many misdemeanors he has acquired. (He’s not even near the three-misdemeanor threshold, though.) If enough people follow him in doing so, Abdollahi believes they can force the government to loosen its restrictions. He wants to show his peers that “no on has anything to be afraid of, but no one knows it.”

Generally, it’s a plan that’s worked so far. No DREAMers involved in civil disobedience have been known to be deported, and Abdollahi says that even when they call ICE on themselves in an attempt to alert them of their presence, it leads to nothing. His suspicion is that the government is simply afraid of the bad publicity that it knows would result from punishing people practicing civil disobedience. His intention is to continue testing that proposition for as long as he can. Indeed, Abdollahi says he’s not planning on applying for deferred action anytime soon.