How Obama’s New Policy Affects Undocumented Youth — and Me

The author of TIME's cover story discusses how the immigration issue continues to be divisive — and why it shouldn't be

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Roberto Guerra / ZUMA Press

Two undocumented students hug as they are about to graduate from UCLA in Los Angeles, June 15, 2012.

“So now we’re taking care of these illegal, foreign kids before taking care of our own kids?”

That question landed in my inbox late Saturday afternoon. The day before had been a landmark in immigrant rights. In a speech in the Rose Garden, President Obama ordered a stop to the deportation of upwards of 1 million undocumented youth, granting them work permits if they meet certain criteria. The emailed question echoed that of the reporter for a conservative news site — an Irish-born, documented immigrant — who interrupted the president’s speech and asked if Obama’s immigration policy favored “foreigners over American workers.” It lines up with the series of questions that many ordinary American citizens have asked me as I traveled the country in the year since I publicly outed myself as undocumented. As immigration takes center stage in this election year, especially as we await the Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s immigration law, variations on this question will reverberate not just on the campaign trail but in schools, offices, churches and living rooms across America.

(MORE: Read TIME’s Cover Story: “Not Legal, Not Leaving”)

So let me make one thing perfectly clear. We are not illegal. First, because no human being is illegal — using that term politicizes and dehumanizes people. In what other context do we call someone illegal? If someone is driving a car at 14, we say “underage driver” not “illegal driver.” Using the word “illegal” has muddled the issue and made it strictly about politics and legality, when it’s much more complex than that. We are also not “foreign” people — the undocumented have been part of America’s story at least as far back as Ellis Island, when crossing the border meant crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

(MORE: Barack Obama: A Nation of Laws and a Nation of Immigrants)

Undocumented youth, as the president underscored in his remarks Friday, are “Americans in their heart.” We grew up in America. We were educated here. We want to give back — to work and pay taxes — to the country we call home. Obama’s temporary order, however incremental and incomplete, is the most significant development in the fight for immigrant rights since Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. (It should not be forgotten that Reagan as president granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.) Indeed, it has changed lives in a very visible way. On the current cover ofTIME, I pose with 35 other undocumented immigrants from 15 different countries. Now, because of Friday’s announcement, almost all of the youth featured on the cover — 32 out of the 36 people in the photograph — can stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation and give back to the only country they call home.

(VIDEO: Undocumented Americans: Inside the Immigration Debate)

All of us in the photo are DREAMers — as defined by the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. And even though not all of us qualified for relief — at age 31, I’m over the age limit of Obama’s order — that didn’t stop elder DREAMers and the rest of the 11.5 million undocumented community from celebrating the occasion. For a community that’s been under attack for years, a win for one group is a win for all groups. My Facebook inbox, for example, was flooded with messages that echoed with this sentiment: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” As I bore witness to Friday’s historic event, surrounded by a rainbow of DREAMers — Gaby Pacheco, of Ecuador, who wants to be a special education teacher; Roy Naim, of Israel, an Orthodox Jew whocame to the U.S. at age 3; and Cesar Vargas, of Mexico, who graduated magna cum laude from law school, among others — I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed.

(PHOTOS: Family Photos of an Undocumented Immigrant)

It is a feeling the entire country should share. The DREAM Act was bipartisan in origin, introduced more than a decade ago by Sen. Dick Durbin (an Illinois Democrat) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (a Utah Republican). It is now a divisive issue. The President’s action invites all kinds of political and partisan interpretation, least of which is pandering to the growing and critical Latino vote. But I am heartened that Mitt Romney, in an interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, refused to say that he would repeal the order if he were elected President. That is a dramatic turn given that Romney, amid his campaign for the GOP nomination, promoted strict policies so undocumented immigrants seeking employment would leave. (Said he: “If people don’t get work here they’re going to self-deport to a place where they can get work.”) Romney has now effectively endorsed the president’s position.

The moral weight of what happened Friday cannot be denied. There is no doubt that the fight for immigration reform, individually and collectively, continues. But, for now, the U.S. has embraced the dreams of upwards of 1 million young people. They aren’t illegal, foreign kids anymore. They are American kids.

PHOTOS: Behind the Cover: America’s Undocumented Immigrants