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As the presidential race enters the final, crucial weeks before Election Day, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have sparred over immigration reform—an issue that Harvard has spent thousands championing in Washington.
For Harvard, the issue of undocumented immigration hit close to home in 2010 when Eric Balderas ’13 was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio.
Classmates formed a Facebook group rallying behind Balderas, who illegally immigrated from Mexico to the United States when he was four.
“Eric is a model stellar student and citizen at Harvard University,” the page, titled “Keep Eric Home,” stated. “His deportation will deprive all of us of a potential citizen whose courage, commitment, and sincere desire to help others through science can only make our country a better place.”
Upper-level administrators and leaders on Capitol Hill also spoke out in support of Balderas, who was ultimately permitted to remain in the country.
Though the Balderas incident is now years in the past, immigration reform remains an important issue for many on campus. Harvard has historically accepted more undocumented students than other leading universities—approximately five to eight every year—according to Nicolas E. Jofre ’13, a student activist and former president of Harvard’s Act on a Dream, an undergraduate group that advocates for immigration reform.
Who wins on November 6 could affect not only the fate of thousands of immigrants across the country, but also the status of undocumented students currently studying at Harvard.
Both Obama and Romney have advocated for immigration reform. Both, however, offer significantly different philosophies and visions for the next four years.
A DREAM, AND DEPORTATIONS, DEFERRED
Since his campaign days in 2008, Obama has endorsed immigration reform that would create a road to citizenship for certain undocumented individuals.
“We need immigration reform that will secure our borders, and punish employers who exploit immigrant labor; reform that finally brings the 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows by requiring them to take steps to become legal citizens,” Obama said.
In the early years of his tenure, Obama strongly supported the DREAM Act—the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, formally, which offered a six-year-long path toward U.S. citizenship for some immigrants.
The act found sympathy at higher education institutions across the nation. University President Drew G. Faust, along with several other university presidents, vigorously lobbied Capitol Hill for the passage of the DREAM Act, writing letters and making public statements in favor of the legislation. Students, including Balderas, also voiced their support, some taking part in a rally at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston.
Despite these efforts, the DREAM Act was killed in the Senate in late 2010. Had it been passed into law, the legislation would have granted citizenship to about 40 undocumented students currently studying at Harvard, according to Anahi D. Mendoza Pacheco ’15, current co-chair of Act on a Dream.
The Obama administration, however, did take a step toward realizing its vision for immigration reform with an executive order last June that defers deportation and grants two-year work permits to undocumented students, veterans, and
young people brought to the United States at an early age.
“It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, riven, patriotic young people,” Obama said. The policy has alleviated fears of deportation for undocumented students at Harvard, Mendoza said. Thousands of young undocumented immigrants from around the country have already submitted applications. However, Jacqueline Bhabha, Law School lecturer and University advisor on Human Rights Education, said she believes that Obama’s deferred action plan may have been less than sincere, a pandering ploy aimed at Hispanic voters who now compose a growing portion of the electorate.
Throughout his term in office, Obama has supported policy which make distinctions between undocumented immigrants with and without a criminal record. Obama backed DREAM Act legislation and ordered ICE not to deport some immigrants—both measures applicable to undocumented individuals without criminal records.
Obama has also asked enforcement officials to target undocumented workers convicted of crimes instead of conducting indiscriminate raids that separate families and punish children brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own.
Despite advocates’ high hopes for immigration reform when Obama first took office, the president has failed to enact substantial reforms, Bhabha said.
“The first four years of Obama’s term have been extremely disappointing,” she said, noting that deportations of undocumented immigrants have increased in number during the Obama administration.
THE ROMNEY PLAN
The policy shifts of the last four year may be reversed if Romney, who takes a harder stance on illegal immigration, wins the race for the Oval Office.
Though Romney does not believe most undocumented immigrants should become citizens, he has endorsed, at times, granting permanent residence to some.
“There are four million people who are waiting in line to get here legally,” he said during the second presidential debate. Individuals who illegaly immigrated as children “should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident,” Romney added.
At that same debate, Romney also said that he would instate an employment verification or “E-Verify” system, which would deny immigrants driver’s licenses and would oppose amnesty for immigrants already living in the United States.
Though Romney has not laid out a concrete plan, Romney said he wants to pursue comprehensive immigration reform at a campaign stop in Florida last summer.
Romney’s comments on illegal immigration did raise some eyebrows during a Republican primary debate in January 2012. On that night, Romney angered some Latino voters with his comments on self-deportation, calling it the best way to cope with the millions living illegally in the United States.
“The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here,” Romney said. “We’re not going to round them up.”
Romney has also said that, if elected, he would veto any legislation modeled after the DREAM Act, standing behind Senate Republicans who succeeded in blocking the passage of the legislation two years ago. He has promised to honor any applications for deferred action made between June and November, when Romney says he will discontinue the program if elected.
“The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place... should expect that the visa would continue to be valid,” Romney said told The Hill in early October.
The stagnant economic climate, however, has discouraged politicians from putting their political muscle behind pushing immigration reform. The presidential candidates themselves have focused on the lackluster economy and tepid job growth while on the campaign trail.
With a weak economy weighing on the minds of Americans, the future of immigration reform is, therefore, “very difficult to predict,” Bhabha said.
—Staff writer Laura K. Reston can be reached at email@example.com.
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