National Voices

Wednesday, Oct 24 2012 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Hispanic voters being lured by a DREAM

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    Esther Cepeda

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CHICAGO -- It's become pretty clear that many Hispanics are lining up to support President Obama in his quest to stay in the White House.

A recent Associated Press story stated the obvious: Some Hispanics who might have considered voting based on their views about economic issues are turning toward the president because of his support of the DREAM Act. And not just his "support," mind you, but his midsummer executive order promising a short-term reprieve from deportation for illegal immigrants under 31 who were brought to the U.S. as children and don't present a risk to national security or public safety.

Those approved under what is called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program get temporary legal status -- not legal permanent residency -- for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and become eligible to apply for work authorization.

Let's recall the actual facts: In 2010, Obama failed to gather the five Democratic holdout votes that would have passed the full DREAM Act with its path to citizenship. In late May of 2012, he issued an executive order, after first getting his homeland security secretary to reverse her opposition, clearing the way for approximately 1.76 million young immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation.

Unfortunately, many of those young people, not to mention their friends and families, believe they're on track to a happy ending. Well, if Obama loses his re-election bid, at least he gets to stay in the country with his family. But those who are supporting him because they think he passed the full DREAM Act might not be so lucky.

I live in a predominantly Hispanic community populated by recent immigrants and I know that many of our students believe the DREAM Act is now law and Obama passed it. They'll tell anyone who will listen that they must support Obama.

I've overhead these conversations while at school functions, seen the high school essays that my husband has graded extolling the virtues of the president's "amnesty," and am aware that guidance counselors in some of our surrounding school districts wonder whether to conduct workshops for their students and families to apprise them of what their viable legal options are.

This is not a local phenomenon. In a recent New York Times article about the power of Hispanic voters to swing the important battleground states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada, reporters quoted a 37-year-old Obama campaign volunteer about why she is involved in his re-election effort.

"I got involved as soon as I heard he signed the DREAM Act," said Adriana Ortiz, whose sister came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a child. "He did something for my family. I'm going to do something for him."

I'm not saying the Obama administration has intentionally misled supporters into believing that he somehow got Congress to change the immigration laws. But if the polls and the reports are accurate, he's getting a really sweet bounce in Hispanic voter approval for merely making a two-year promise he may not be able to keep.

I spoke to Betty Hung, the policy director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, an organization that provides Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities with legal assistance. She told me that with the widespread misunderstanding of the DACA program and a combination of wishful thinking and not enough information about local programs such as the California, Maryland and Illinois DREAM acts (which provide access to higher education for students residing in the country illegally but do not change their immigration status), there's a lot of confusion out there about what's really going on.

"It is so important for undocumented young people to really know what their rights are and understand the policies that are affecting them," said Hung, who has worked closely with Hispanic and Asian immigrant youth to try to pass the federal DREAM Act. "We, and many media and other organizations, have been pretty cautious about what could happen, and I think a significant number of DREAMers are waiting to see what happens with the election before they apply for DACA. But they're still out there putting their lives on the line."

Sure, the president is enjoying a bump in popularity because of his temporary immigration Band-Aid, but the ultimate cost of his re-election stunt remains to be seen.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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