Don’t worry DREAMers, US immigration advocates have already won

Hibo Omar, 17, a Nashville resident from Somalia, talks to her friends after greeting U.S. President Barack Obama.
Hibo Omar, 17, a Nashville resident from Somalia, talks to her friends after greeting U.S. President Barack Obama.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Late last year Astrid Silva, an immigration activist from Las Vegas, testified in front of the US Senate to advocate for comprehensive reform. That event was the culmination of years’ worth of efforts to shift the focus onto people like Silva: she was educated and hard-working, but had been brought into the country illegally by her family as a child.

“When I was just four years old, my parents brought me across the Rio Grande in a homemade tire raft. I still have a vague memory of that day. I was holding onto my doll so tight, because I was so afraid of what was going on,” Silva told the judiciary committee.

In November, during President Obama’s announcement of DAPA — or Deferred Action for Parental Accountability — Astrid was thrust into the forefront of the debate when the President referred to her by name: “Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree — are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid?” — “Surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student” asked Obama during his recent State of the Union.

Only a few weeks later Astrid stood in front of Congress to advocate for the executive action on deferred deportations, and for the comprehensive immigration reform package which passed the Senate in 2013, but has sat idly against Republican opposition in the House.

When asked about her senate testimony, Astrid points to the fact that it was the deferred deportation act for those brought into the US as minors passed by the Obama administration in 2012 that allowed her such an opportunity. That action, while providing immediate relief for people like Astrid, also allowed the White House to essentially weaponize the potential contributions of thousands of undocumented students in the debate for further immigration reform.

“It was something that I never expected to do ever in my life. I think it’s a great thing to show that people who are undocumented are now able to advocate for ourselves, whereas allies had to do it before, now we’re actually being able to share our own stories,” says Astrid.

A high profile push in 2010 to enact the DREAM Act, legislation targeted at relief for college-aged undocumented immigrants, failed to garner sufficient votes despite an energetic campaign. In the aftermath of the DREAM Act’s fall the Obama administration enacted DACA in 2012, a piecemeal approach affording some protection from immediate deportation for the undocumented.

Though not the sweeping immigration reform that advocates had been seeking, the executive actions have had one immediate, and likely irreversible result: the fast-track integration of hundreds of thousands of undocumented into the formal labor force — i.e., tax-payers.

Advocates for immigration reform–a broad coalition that includes the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and groups like #Not1More–continued to exert pressure on the White House to go further than its first action in 2012, mounting several large protests earlier this year in more than 40 cities across the country, and continually haranguing President Obama and the Vice President during televised appearances.

The sustained pressure from immigration reform advocates seemed to have finally paid off in the form of the president’s decision to provide three years worth of deportation relief and work permits for as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants.

This second round of deferred action is set to kick in as early as February 18th, already this week the White House instructed immigration officers to determine whether any undocumented immigrants they encounter will qualify for deferred deportation, and review the files of those currently imprisoned.

The White House’s actions come at a time when dissatisfaction among Hispanics, themselves representing the vast majority of the undocumented immigrant population in the country, has caused the president’s approval ratings with that group to fall 23 points within the last year–the largest decline among any major subgroup.

Predictably, the latest executive action immediately drew ire from Republican legislators, many of whom have been obstructing comprehensive immigration reform since Obama’s election.

“The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The president’s unilateral actions to bypass Congress undermine the constitution and threaten our democracy,’’ Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican, said at the start of a House hearing several weeks ago.

“Regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is a right way to do this, and there is a wrong way. And unfortunately, the president has taken the wrong way.’’

Despite the vitriol, Republicans appear to lack any immediate means to oppose the executive’s move to defer deportations.

“We cannot, literally cannot, defund that agency in an appropriations bill because we don’t appropriate that agency,” said committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing, referring to the fact that the executive actions refer to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which operate on collected fees rather than Congressional appropriations.

Supporters of the executive action are unfazed.

“It really boils down to a standing question: not anybody can just sue anybody else because they feel like it, they actually have to be harmed, and we feel confident that the states don’t have standing here,” says Kamal Essaheb, the Immigration Policy Attorney for the National Immigration Law Center.

So far, the cases brought on by a mounting number of state district attorneys — 20 at last count — are “baseless,” says Essaheb.

What’s more, if the GOP does hope to sustain a coordinated push against the latest executive actions, even the party’s official response to Obama’s State of the Union Address so far reflects differences of opinion.

Unlike the English-language version of the Republican response to the SOTU by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, which avoided the topic of immigration reform entirely, political observers immediately noted that Florida Representative’s Carlos Curbelo’s Spanish-language version referred specifically to pushing for “permanent solutions” for the country’s immigration system.

The latest executive action will also pair along an existing trend of reduced cooperation with ICE on the 2008 Secure Communities program, which has mandated that state and local law enforcement flag and hold undocumented immigrants for deportation by ICE.

In April the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked the White House to eliminate the Secure Communities program entirely. That same month Philadelphia announced it would no longer comply with the program — a number of states, municipalities and counties have also moved to alter or halt holdings for ICE, including Maryland, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, many counties within Oregon and Virginia, Washington, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco.

In California the TRUST Act was passed in 2013 which specifically targets ICE holds, clips below demonstrate passage of the bill has immediately led to reduced holds on deportation issues (44 pct). Connecticut has passed a similar bill.

Still, underscoring the fear that many undocumented immigrants continue to face with the choice of declaring themselves illegal, only half of the young DACA-eligible immigrants opted to apply for its protection, according to figures cited by the Migration Policy Institute.

Declaring oneself as undocumented for several year’s worth of deportation protection involves a visit to immigration services, a $465 fee, a background check, fingerprinting, and the creation of a file that will track an applicant’s employers, their domicile, and the names of all individuals residing in their home.

Yet, immigration advocates like Astrid Silva sense that this second time around their communities are being faster to react, and the sense from grassroots activity on the ground seems to confirm that suspicion.

“There are more people that are willing to sign up from the get-go with this — we’ve already been flooded with questions from community members, if they qualify, when they can start filling it out.”

“It’s a very big interest, I’d say even more than when DACA was announced, because back then there was a lot of skepticism,” says Silva.

In late December, several thousand people packed a convention center in central Los Angeles to attend an informational event on administrative relief put on by a coalition of local organizations, including the National Partnership for New Americans. The NPNA says that at least 1,800 participants expressed interest in applying for DAPA or DACA, and similar forums are now planned across the country to spread the word and prepare those eligible to register.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in states like New York almost 40% of the undocumented immigrant population will qualify for some form of deferred action (338,000 out of an estimated total of 873,000). That is a lot of people, and the figures are equally as startling in other populous states like California — 49% — and Florida — 40%.

In cities from Nashville to New York the outlook looks to promise a flood of petitions for deferment. Many immigration organizations offer weekly workshops where hopeful applicants for deportation relief can gather their paperwork, get in touch with legal assistance, and even apply for assistance in paying the application fees.

By the time DACA goes into effect, there will be tens of thousands ready to apply, and the impact will spread retroactively to those who were already eligible for the 2012 executive order.

In a matter of a few years a large swath of the undocumented population in the US will be formally employed. College students, recent grads and families where one or both parents have relied on deferred deportation will have been contributing to the tax base and to their communities.

Comprehensive immigration reform has already occurred, not while Congress slept but certainly as it stood inert.

“I don’t see a scenario where a future president undoes this,” says Essaheb. “I think opponents are out there trying to intimidate applicants because they know the more people apply, the harder it is to take this away.”