Fulfilling a ‘DREAM’: U.S. to Let Young Undocumented Immigrants Stay

In a dramatic shift in policy — and a day after TIME's cover story — the U.S. government said Friday it will give eligible young undocumented residents work permits and not subject them to deportation.

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Parker Haeg / Demotix / Corbis

Activists from the Arizona Dream Act coalition demonstrate outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Phoenix, May 17, 2012

The Obama Administration announced a policy change on Friday to allow some undocumented young people to avoid deportation. Under a directive from the Department of Homeland Security, as many as 800,000 illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will be permitted to stay in the country and legally obtain work permits.

The announcement will provide relief for “dreamers,” the group of undocumented students who have long fought for the right to stay in the U.S., which is in many cases the only country they have ever known. While the policy will not lead to citizenship for the dreamers, it removes the constant threat of deportation many of them have lived with for their entire lives.

The news comes just a day after TIME’s cover story this week, “We Are Americans,” which reported about how undocumented youths have been a focus of reform efforts — and a potential flash point for the politics of the presidential election as both parties court Latino voters. TIME’s article, written by Jose Antonio Vargas — who himself is openly undocumented — explored a surge of young people coming out about their status and how those increasingly visible faces reshape the immigration debate.

(COVER STORY: We Are Americans, Just Not Legally)

To avoid deportation under the new directive, illegal immigrants must have been brought to the U.S. before they were 16 years old and be younger than 30. They must have stayed in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, and be enrolled in or have graduated from a U.S. high school or have earned a GED or have served in the military.

The move allows the Obama Administration to bypass Congress to achieve some of the goals included in the Dream Act, which would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the country if they had joined the military or attended college in the U.S. The decade-old bill was passed by the House two years ago but blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

Just last week, two illegal immigrants who each came to the U.S. with their respective families at age 4 occupied President Obama’s Denver campaign office and began a short-lived hunger strike to raise awareness about the plight of undocumented students.

In a memorandum released by the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Janet Napolitano described the dreamers as people who were “brought to this country as children and know only this country as home.” Because they entered the country at a young age, Napolitano said they “lacked the intent to violate the law.”

(WATCH: Inside the World of an “Illegal” Immigrant)

Napolitano went on to say that while the administrative review of the cases had already offered closure to many such illegal immigrants, more needed to be done to ensure enforcement resources were not wasted on these low-priority cases.

“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner,” Napolitano wrote. “They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language.”

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

PHOTOS: Behind the Cover: America’s Undocumented Immigrants

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