Activists, immigrants and many other Americans were thrilled today with President Barack Obama's announcement that he was planning on using his executive powers to implement pieces of the DREAM Act, which has stalled out in Congress. The immigration reform legislation would provide certain rights and privileges to people who came to the United States as children and are currently living as undocumented immigrants.
Former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas -- who outed himself in 2011 as a lifelong undocumented immigrant -- welcomed the news. On a conference call with journalists, he and other DREAM Act supporters shared their own experiences and their sense of joy and pride at having called awareness to people like themselves who are living in the shadows, here in the U.S. in body, but not on paper.
The Filipino-American Vargas was one of an estimated millions undocumented Americans, working as an editor at The Huffington Post when he first heard a group of students walking from Miami to Washington, DC to draw attention to the DREAM Act. "I was in their shoes," he said Friday. He had come to the U.S. as a twelve-year-old boy, and only found out that he was undocumented when he applied for a driver's license at the age of 16.
He called President Obama's decision today "historic, bold and necessary," but cautioned journalists to remember that the president's policy, while a boon to an estimated million or more people in the country today, is temporary. It must be re-applied for every two years and the next person to occupy the Oval Office could invalidate it with a stroke of the pen.
Vargas and fellow activist Gaby Pacheco -- whose leadership he called "essential" -- also warned that Obama's plan only applies to a strictly defined population: only people who are under 30 who have been in the country for five years or more, and who were less than 15 years old when they arrived are eligible to participate. That's roughly one million out of an estimated ten million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
Finally, they emphasized that the new legislation is limited. It does not provide applicants with a green card, a path to citizenship or confer anything like citizenship to them at the end of the process. Only Congress, they said, can pass the DREAM Act and confer real citizenship or provide a path to naturalization for undocumented immigrants.
At 31, Vargas is himself too old to qualify for the president's immunity program -- but he's excited nonetheless.
"Today is a wonderful day," he said, "Today, America embraced one million dreams."
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