Two Sacramento teens facing deportation to Colombia are among the first undocumented youths in the nation to benefit from the Obama administration's new policy not to deport 800,000 federal DREAM Act kids in good standing.
Chie Yee Yang, 19, visited his deportation officer at the Department of Homeland Security in Sacramento Tuesday morning and was told he and his brother Kawah Yee Yang, 16, would not be deported for at least two years.
"He told us, 'You've heard about the new policy, we can't really touch you,' " said a relieved Chie, who was a valedictorian of the first graduating class at Sacramento City Unified School District's School of Engineering and Sciences. He and his brother can now apply for two-year work permits from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.
But the news was bittersweet. The boys' parents, Yanshan Yu and Sumei Yang, are still under deportation orders to return to either their native China or Colombia, where they lived for 18 years and had their sons.
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"I'm happy my sons can stay and complete their education, but sad we're still going to be separated," said Yu, 51, clutching a leather portfolio containing his immigration papers. "I'm worried about what's going to happen to us and our sons – they need parental guidance. What if they get into some trouble?"
That seems unlikely. The teens meet all five criteria outlined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in her June 15 memo: They came to the United States before age 16 and are under age 31, have lived here continuously for at least five years, are currently high school students or graduates, and have no criminal records "or otherwise pose no threat to national security or public safety."
The brothers have been honored nationally for their scientific achievements. Kawah, who just finished 10th grade at the School of Engineering and Sciences with a 4.0 GPA, plans to become a civil engineer, building roads and bridges.
Chie, awarded highest honors at Sacramento City College, plans to become a computer engineer.
"An internship at Intel would be awesome," he said. "I didn't think I'd last the summer in the U.S., and now I'll look for a part-time job at a fast-food joint."
The historic – and controversial – Napolitano memo declared the nation's immigration laws aren't designed to be "blindly enforced." The memo said deporting youth to countries where they've spent little or no time and may not even speak the language makes no sense. "Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways," it stated.
The memo expanded the Obama administration's policy of "prosecutorial discretion," focusing resources on immigrants with criminal records, while no longer targeting immigrants with clean records and years of work or school.
"It's exciting stuff," said UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson. "It's very difficult to condemn children for violating the law when actually it was their parents."
Johnson noted that the Obama administration has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants – about 1 million.
"The Yee brothers may well be among the very first beneficiaries of the new policy," Johnson said. "I haven't heard of any others."
Between 800,000 and 1.4 million federal DREAM Act kids – brought here by their parents when the children were young – could benefit from the new policy. But only those already ordered deported can get immediate relief. They receive a two-year deferment that can be renewed for another two years – and a work permit.
Youths not facing deportation proceedings can apply for work permits from the Citizenship and Immigration Service in 60 days.
The Yus, who probably wouldn't have been ordered deported if they hadn't applied for legal status, are a rare case.
Yanshan Yu left a life of poverty in rural south China in 1984 for a chop suey restaurant in Barranquilla, Colombia. He brought his wife over in 1991. They opened two successful Happy Garden restaurants and had two sons.
But when they started making money, Kawah was kidnapped on his way home from day care and ransomed for $3,000. The Yus said their restaurants were robbed, shot up and vandalized because they refused to pay protection.
In January 2002, they fled to the United States. Yu got a job as a butcher and bought a home in Sacramento's Creekside neighborhood. He said he pays more than $5,000 a year in taxes.
But the Yus overstayed their six-month tourist visas. They applied for asylum, claiming that if they returned to China, they could face sterilization and fines for violating the one-child policy. They also claimed they had been targeted by Colombian gangs because of their ethnicity.
An immigration judge ruled that although the family suffered "significant harm" in Colombia, the kidnapping and robberies were motivated by money, not prejudice. The judge also noted China had relaxed its one-child policy.
There's a chance all the Yus could get visas to Colombia, but the sons would rather stay here. While the family weighs its options, those who oppose the policy in Congress may try to take legal action.
"The amnesty announced Friday is an end run around Congress and the Constitution," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Mehlman said that not only has Congress rejected the DREAM Act, it has passed laws against illegal immigrants getting work permits.
The policy could add more than a million people to the labor force "when we have 23 million people unemployed or underemployed," Mehlman said.
Johnson noted that the new policy doesn't include a path to permanent residency – which the DREAM Act would have included. He acknowledged the tough economic times, "but these folks for all intents and purposes are Americans. They're going to be in the job market whether we like it or not."
And the new policy does not help the kids' parents, Johnson said. Yu and Yang must report to their deportation officer Aug. 6.
The brothers will probably move in with relatives in Sacramento or Elk Grove if their parents are deported. Even if Colombia grants the whole family visas, Yu and Yang want the boys to stay in Sacramento.
"They're good students, and we don't want them to lose that," Yu said.