Millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States can now be spared deportation and given the opportunity to live in the country legally by an executive order announced by President Obama last night.
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The order could provide roughly 5 million undocumented people – or nearly half of the undocumented immigrant population currently living in the United States – a concrete way to gain legal status, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). The largest population impacted will be an estimated 4 million people who have been living in the United States and are parents of US citizens or permanent residents.
Hundreds of thousands could also newly qualify for expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), MPI estimates. Previous age requirements that DACA recipients be younger than 31 will be eliminated, and the cut-off for when recipients had to have entered the country will be pushed forward from 2007 to 2010.
Obama also signaled a change to enforcement priorities, that immigration agents will focus on deporting “[f]elons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”
According to the Pew Research Center, deportations reached a historic high of nearly 440,000 in 2013, even though the president acknowledged Thursday illegal border crossing are currently the lowest since the 1970s.
“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together,” Obama implored in his Thursday night address.
Immigrant advocates were encouraged by the move, but stressed it’s one important win in a longer fight.
“It’s not a permanent solution; it’s an incremental but critical step,” said Avideh Moussavian, economic justice policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center’s Washington DC office.
Moussavian said it’s important to recognize President Obama’s move as a victory for those who have been fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.
“Immigrant community leaders and directly impacted people and all of us together are pushing for a more permanent, inclusive solution,” she said. But, “by giving people a chance to remove this constant cloud of fear over their heads, it allows people to fulfill their true potential. More people will be paying taxes and more people will be in the work force in a way they will not be taken advantage of and exploited by bad employers.”
Like DACA, the program will allow for renewable work permits, not a path to citizenship. “Only Congress can do that,” Obama pointed out. But the path to citizenship for many immigrants is backlogged, fractured and virtually impossible, and that’s why comprehensive reform is needed, Moussavian said.
“There’s a lot of mythology about there being some line everyone can get to the back of, and that’s just not true,” she said, noting that the channels by which people can obtain legal status or citizenship are very limited.
In 2013, only 44,000 work visas for “skilled and unskilled” labor were issued, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data.
In July, Salem State professor Aviva Chomsky told Truthout current immigration policy is unfair because it provides small European countries with limited migration the same visa quotas as high-population countries with long-standing histories of migration to the US for work, like Mexico and other Central and South American countries.
While labor migration between the US and Mexico used to be fluid, the ramped-up security and militarization of the US-Mexico has, counter-intuitively, increased the number of immigrants living in the US without documentation, because the border-on-steroids approach traps people.
“The more the border is militarized, the more the undocumented population grows. Instead of coming and going, people come and stay because it’s too dangerous to keep gambling with the repeated border crossings,” she said in July.
Immigrant rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando, who has lived in the United States for 22 years and has a 17-year-old daughter who is a citizen, said she has mixed feelings about possibly qualifying for the new program.
“I worry about people not falling into those categories, and even then, when will it begin, and will it leave the door open for more deportations to continue?” she said. “I feel bad that I could be protected and many people wouldn’t.”
If given legal status under the new plan, Villalpando said she will have the opportunity to visit relatives living outside the country for the first time in nearly 20 years. She also said her daughter will be able to live without fear that her mother will suddenly disappear into the maws of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without warning.
Villalpando expressed concern that hinging status on whether or not one has children functionally excludes young people who don’t qualify for DACA a large portion of the LGBTQ community from the program.
“We have a very young immigrant community and also an LGBT community. [Many of them] don’t have children, so this wouldn’t apply to them,” she said.
Moussavian said the rollout will be key. Fees have been the biggest barrier preventing people who qualify for DACA from applying for it, so the program is not at capacity.
“We’ve been very clear communicating that to the DHS,” she said. “Affordability factors are very big. The demographic we’re talking about, several hundred dollars for more than one family member is significant.”
It also remains to be seen how reforms to enforcement policies will play out.
“As happy as we’ll be to see that there will be people who can benefit, we don’t want that coming at the expense of reducing the rights of others who are not eligible for this program,” she said.
Villalpando vowed to continue the fight, though the president’s announcement filled her and other activists with a sense of pride.
“We moved the whole conversation to this point and the president to actually act. It is a step in the right direction, but it’s a tiny step,” she said. “We’re not going to go anywhere. We are part of this country; our children are part of this country.”
Moussavian said she hopes Congress will consider what the next steps are to continue the procession toward immigration reform that will benefit everyone, instead of trying to block the president’s executive order.
“This is not unique; this is not unprecedented. We’ve had presidents on both sides of the aisle since Eisenhower who have taken measures like this,” she said. “We don’t always have the luxury of knowing the journeys of our own ancestors, but these struggles aren’t new and the questions aren’t new. We’ve found smart ways of dealing with these challenges in the past. This is an incredible opportunity to strengthen our country as a whole.”