This week, thousands of young immigrants will file paperwork to request "Deferred Action" status from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services under a new Obama Administration policy applying to certain undocumented individuals who entered the U.S. as children.
The new policy will defer the deportation-and grant employment authorization to-individuals who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday, who have been present in the U.S. for at least 5 years, who are either in school, have graduated from high school, have earned their GED, or are an honorably discharged military veteran, and who have stayed out of serious criminal trouble.
Alberto La Rosa is one of these young people. He came to the U.S. from Peru as a small child with his parents. When their visas expired, Alberto's family stayed, waiting more than a decade on a visa request filed by his uncle, and became undocumented. Alberto studied hard and became an active member of his church youth group. Eventually-though ineligible for federal financial aid because of his lack of legal status-he earned a scholarship to a private evangelical college. This past May, he graduated with honors.
Alberto's next step is seminary, where he hopes to be trained to one day minister to others as a pastor. To support himself through graduate studies, Alberto felt pressure to acquire false work documents-something his conscience has always kept him from doing. Thanks to the Deferred Action policy, though, Alberto should now be eligible for Employment Authorization and a Social Security number, allowing him to work his way through seminary legally.
This new policy is merely a temporary, administrative measure. In the absence of legislative change, future Administrations will have to decide whether to renew Alberto's work permit, which will expire every two years. That decision will determine whether or not, after completing seminary, Alberto will be allowed to lawfully accept employment by a church-and whether he is allowed to stay in the U.S. and minister here at all.
Alberto is grateful for this change, as are many youth pastors, teachers, and members of local churches who have supported young people like him. In my work with World Relief, which is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals and has programs providing legal assistance to immigrants across the United States, I have encountered dozens of young people with similar stories, many of them active members of local churches. The lack of a functional policy has led to an enormous waste of God-given talent and resources, and this Deferred Action program will be a huge blessing to local churches.
While a positive step, this new policy is simply a band-aid on the gaping wound of our immigration legal system. Young people like Alberto are among the most sympathetic individuals affected by a dysfunctional system that has many victims: our national economy, which is stifled by antiquated quotas that are out-of-touch with our labor market, families who are divided by deportation and by backlogged processes for family reunification, undocumented workers who are vulnerable to exploitative labor conditions and even human trafficking, and the rule of law, which both employers and immigrant workers risk for lack of a functional system.
The tides are changing when it comes to public opinion on immigration reform, especially among Christians. Evangelical leaders from across the theological and political spectrum-including leaders of many denominations, churches, seminaries, Christian colleges, and parachurch ministries-all signed a public statement agreeing to common ground principles in regard to immigration policies. This was the launch of the Evangelical Immigration Table and just the first step in a long term effort to educate Christians on what their own scripture says about how we treat immigrants and pressure policymakers to find common ground and common-sense solutions.
The new Deferred Action policy for individuals like Alberto is a praiseworthy first step, but my prayer is that it is a down-payment for the creation of a common-sense immigration process.