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Young illegal immigrants see hope in Obama plan
Others see thwarting of the US Constitution
Rafael Leon and his friend Nancy Arceo enjoy a walk through Longwood Park. - photo by Tom Reed

Last year, the United States deported more than 396,000 illegal immigrants.

Now, some may be able to breathe a little easier following an action from the White House last month.

President Barack Obama bypassed Congress and unveiled a plan, effective immediately, that would allow hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants to remain in the nation and have a chance to work, legally.

They will be able to avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military. They can also apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.

Rafael Leon Jr. is paying close attention — he is one of those immigrants.

The senior at Wood’s Mill High School said he was brought to the U.S. with his family when he was 2 years old.

He has never been back and, he said, before this presidential action, his future in this nation was blurry.

“It’s actually opened up my future,” Leon said. “Because, honestly, after high school you really didn’t have much of a choice. But now, with this, you have more opportunities to look forward to. You don’t have to give up after high school.”

Many school leaders say they have already seen the optimism from immigrant students.

“The main thing I’ve seen that it’s done is just made them be able to breathe and not look over their shoulder all the time,” said Kay Holleman, counselor at Gainesville High School.

But some supporters of tougher immigration laws say the president’s orders were unconstitutional and the issue stems from the federal government’s inability to enforce its own laws.

Georgia State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, who sponsored a bill earlier this year that would beef up Georgia’s immigration laws, said the president’s executive order overstepped his constitutional power and that all naturalization laws, according to the U.S. Constitution, go through Congress.

“(Obama) has taken an unconstitutional power — power that’s given directly to the legislative branch,” Loudermilk said. “He’s overridden it because they wouldn’t pass a law that he wanted: the DREAM Act.”

The DREAM Act is legislation that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military. The order implements parts of that act.

“To me, I think he’s violated his oath of office by saying he would uphold the Constitution,” Loudermilk continued.

“I think you have grounds for impeachment, but maybe the American people will impeach him, without having to go through Congress, in November.”

Other lawmakers say Obama was trying to get the Hispanic vote.

“It will certainly allow these people to relax,” said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “I think Obama is doing whatever he needs to do to get re-elected and he hadn’t been able to get anything together in Congress.

“He could have done it three and a half years ago, he could have done it three years ago, he could have done it a long time ago. It’s the same reason gasoline is going down.”

Some supporters of the decision say they expect to see a positive impact, political or not, especially in local school systems.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, said public school systems invest, on average, about $15,000 a year per child.

“As a school leader, we have been held accountable and responsible for delivering a high school graduate prepared for higher education, the military or to enter the workforce with an industry certification,” she said.

“When our immigration policy then removes these students from workforce consideration, what is the return on our investment?”

School leaders also said it’s now not out of the question to see higher graduation rates and more motivation in immigrant students, who may have opted out of finishing school because of a questionable future.

Leon said the thought of not finishing high school crossed his mind frequently, but he said he’s stuck with it and will graduate in December.

“It crossed my mind, maybe a year ago, (to drop out),” he said. “It’s always crossed my mind that it was pretty much pointless to finish high school because after I got my high school diploma, I couldn’t do anything afterwards, so I’d be pretty much living the same life.”

Holleman hopes to see that way of thinking dissipate now that students have more options.

“I think anytime you give somebody hope, then they’re going to rise to the occasion,” she said. “They just really didn’t see anything happening, and (now) they’re smiling and their parents are smiling when they come in.”

Leon sees some of the same in his peers.

“They think likewise,” he said. “I have some friends that have always been good students and everything, but they couldn’t really do anything after high school. But now some people are really happy that this happened.”

And Loudermilk said he can see that side of the argument, but maintained the channels which it went through were wrong.

“I can see that argument and, you know, you can have a positive side to anything, but even whether it’s good policy or not, the act of the president was unconstitutional,” he said. “So, it comes back to if this is the type of policy we need to pass, then that needs to go through Congress.

“It really opens a can of worms by thwarting the federal and state laws just through a sweep of the pen.”

The White House estimates the action will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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