Region's immigration experts call new federal policy for children 'a huge relief'

Lexey Swall/Staff 
 In this file photo, about 100 people gathered to march through the streets in Immokalee in support of President Barack Obama and immigration reform to legalize more than 12 million immigrants in 2009.  The Obama administration announced Friday it would stop deporting younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have led law-abiding lives.

Photo by Lexey Swall-Bobay

Lexey Swall/Staff In this file photo, about 100 people gathered to march through the streets in Immokalee in support of President Barack Obama and immigration reform to legalize more than 12 million immigrants in 2009. The Obama administration announced Friday it would stop deporting younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have led law-abiding lives.

Requirements to be considered under new immigration policy:

■ Under age 16 when came to U.S.

■ Has already resided in U.S. continuously for at least five years already

■ In school, a high school graduate, obtained GED or honorably discharged

■ Not been convicted of a serious crime; doesn’t pose threat to national security

■ Not older than 30

Source: Department of Homeland Security

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— The government labeled Friday's reprieve for some young illegal immigrants in the U.S. as "deferred action" and an extension of "prosecutorial discretion."

For many Southwest Florida families, it will simply mean "relief," local immigration activists and experts said.

"As part of what I've seen in this community, it's great that we're seeing this step," said Grey Torrico, an activist and organizer in Collier County's undocumented and immigrant communities. "I've worked with so many youths, I feel like there's so much talent out there being wasted because many don't have legal status."

To the "many people in limbo, it would be such a huge relief," Torrico said.

Friday's announcement by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described a new policy that would allow for illegal immigrants under age 30 to live and work legally for renewable two-year periods without being deported if they satisfy certain requirements. Criteria include having entered the country before age 16 and maintaining no criminal record, among others.

Naples lawyer Casey Wolff raised an eyebrow when a top administrator under Napolitano pulled out of attending a conference for immigration attorneys in Nashville on Friday morning. The announcement came as a surprise to participants there, including himself, he said.

Adding that he has seen hundreds of cases in which children "have done nothing more than obey their parents" in coming to the U.S. illegally, Wolff called the reform "one hell of an announcement."

"This is a humanitarian stopgap measure and it's definitely throwing down the gauntlet to Congress, (saying) 'I'm giving you two years to fix this,'" Wolff said, referring to a more extensive immigration overhaul in the future.

Reaction to the announcement among Florida's U.S. senators split Friday along party lines. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson released a written statement of support, reiterating his backing of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act.

Meanwhile, his Republican counterpart, Sen. Marco Rubio, accused the government of "once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress," saying "this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one."

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

Photo by Lynne Sladky

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Bill Nelson

Photo by provided

Sen. Bill Nelson

Napolitano specified that the policy "is not immunity, it is not amnesty," and it isn't tantamount to citizenship either.

Torrico, who was an activist in support of the stalled DREAM Act while a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, urged caution regarding the new policy for those reasons. Without citizenship on the table, she's unsure illegal immigrants will feel safe from deportation.

"I really think that we really need to figure out what this means," she said. "Until we have something signed, something in hand, I'm personally not holding my breath."

At the Bonita Springs-based nonprofit Amigos Center, which in part provides immigration services to illegal immigrants, director Bob Selle supported Friday's announcement but like Torrico is waiting to see if and when the decision trickles down to the local level.

"When they have this policy, the bureaucrats need to come up with the procedures and the forms. That will take several months, typically," said Selle, also the organization's founder.

"Let's let them loose, Let's let them work so that they can function and prosper in this country," he said of the young immigrants. "I'm sure there are a lot of people in your school districts in Lee and Collier right now that would be affected by this."

By law, the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't collect information on illegal immigration status, only on citizenship.

Collier County School District administrators were unavailable for comment Friday, but in Lee County district spokesman Joe Donzelli explained that the school system has no idea of how many students could be affected.

"We don't ask for documentation. We don't get involved in documentation," Donzelli said, adding that if paperwork needs to be filled out for the new policy, the most school employees could do is point students toward outside organizations that could help.

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