California, Texas and eight other states have laws giving in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants. Maryland passed such a law, but it has been stalled by legal challenges. The new federal policy does not address this issue, however. At the other end of the spectrum, Arizona and Alabama have passed tough laws barring illegal immigrants from a range of activities and allowed police to check their legal status. Other states have passed laws to limit various types of public benefits available for illegal immigrants.
“The first thing that will make a difference to me is that now I can drive legally,” said Victor Palafox, 20, a Mexican immigrant and high school graduate who was visiting Washington from Alabama on Friday. “It gives me my humanity back.”
Immigration advocates as well as critics said the new policy is far from an adequate substitute for an overhaul of the entire federal immigration system. The issue is highly emotional and partisan, and lawmakers have repeatedly failed to agree on a broad policy to deal with the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
“Due to congressional inaction, we have seen a lot of laws passed at the state level that in many cases only add chaos,” said Clarissa Martinez, an official of the National Council of La Raza in Washington. “Where the administration is justified and able, they should intervene, as they have done in this case. But it only intensifies the need for Congress to act.”
The most significant and contentious aspect of the new policy is that it automatically grants hundreds of thousands of people in their teens and 20s — most of them from Mexico and Central America — the right to work in the United States. Many may have already been working, but as undocumented laborers they often had to accept low wages and poor conditions.
“For hundreds of thousands of young people, the immediate effect will be that they can exhale and go out and look for a job,” said Gustavo Andrade, an official of the pro-immigrant group CASA of Maryland.
Effect on low-wage jobs?
But Steven Camarota, a researcher with the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said that the Obama administration was not taking into account the new measure’s probable impact on competition for jobs at the low end of the economic scale, where chronic unemployment is highest. Among Americans with less than a high school education, he said, the jobless rate is 13 percent.
“It doesn’t seem the administration is considering the cascading consequences,” Camarota said. “What does this mean for unemployed Americans who will be competing for jobs with a million-plus people who can now apply for work authorization? Is this really a good idea?”
Staff writers Krissah Thompson and Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.