U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a longtime champion of opening a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants, said Friday that the Obama administration's decision to stop many deportations offers thousands of people a future in America.
The Democrat from Illinois took up the cause 11 years ago after hearing the stories of illegal immigrants who grew up in America but could not get on with their lives because of the risk of deportation. Friday's executive order meets many of the goals of the DREAM Act, which has long been stalled by Republican opposition in Congress.
"This is an historic humanitarian moment in American history," Durbin said in Chicago. "It is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to the world the values and caring of a great nation. And equally important, it gives to these young people ... a chance to be part of our future."
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. The policy does not lead toward citizenship.
Appearing alongside Durbin at a news conference, Palestinian Alaa Mukahhal said she hoped the change would halt her own deportation proceedings.
She was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was 7 years old and grew up in suburban Chicago, becoming an honor student in high school.
Now 25, Mukahhal has earned a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in hopes of designing affordable housing for low-income communities. But she has not been able to put it to use because of her illegal status.
"I'm actually in deportation and I have a court date in September, so I would hope that this would be a way to make sure that I won't be deported," she said in an interview. "It's definitely an encouraging announcement but the work is not over."
Durbin said he would continue to try to get the DREAM Act passed but acknowledged that was unlikely with the current Republican-dominated House.
Another supporter, U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, said the DREAM Act still is badly needed and Friday's executive order could help push the issue.
"This sets the ball in motion to break the gridlock and fix our laws so that people who live here can do so legally and on-the-books and people can come with visas instead of smugglers in the first place," the Chicago Democrat said in a statement.