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Immigration Executive Actions: Beyond Deportation

Rachel Cohrs |
December 1, 2014 | 9:33 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles is educating Angelenos regarding President Obama's recent immigration actions. (Rachel Cohrs/Neon Tommy)
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles is educating Angelenos regarding President Obama's recent immigration actions. (Rachel Cohrs/Neon Tommy)
As the president’s speech came to a close, the room grew somber and silent, and the weight of disappointment permeated the air. Although the executive actions announced were a victory for immigration reform activists, there was little celebration at a viewing party of the presidential address hosted by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. 

President Obama’s executive actions on immigration certainly helped a significant proportion of undocumented immigrants, with estimates up to around 5 million. The silence wasn’t for that. It reflected on the somber realization that 6 million undocumented immigrants were left out. 

Maria Galvon is an undocumented immigrant who won’t benefit under the new actions because her daughter was not born in the United States. “We hoped to have our own business and get a better life. We want to buy a house, but all those dreams came down. But we are happy for those that are affected, who can get better jobs and a better life,” Galvon said.

As has been well-documented by the media, the reaction to the president’s initiatives was a bit different on the conservative side of the aisle. Outrage ensued, along with claims that the actions exceeded the president’s authority and cries that the president had ruined future prospects for compromise.

The morning after President Obama’s first speech, the phones in the CHIRLA office rang off the hook. Callers, speaking rapid Spanish, asked essentially the same questions: “Who does this impact? Will it help me?” and “Is this really going to happen? Is this true?”

So are the executive actions legal?

To clear this question up right now: yes, President Obama’s executive action regarding deportation protections for parents of U.S. citizens and certain young people is inside the boundaries of accepted presidential power. 

Presidents from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush have taken similar actions, although on a smaller scale. Resources are limited, and there simply is not enough funding to deport every person who has entered the United States illegally. Therefore, some distinctions in who is to be pursued and who will not must be made, and it is within the president’s established authority to do so.

The president didn’t offer a path to citizenship or to protect all illegal immigrants from deportation, both of which would need to be passed into law with the cooperation of Congress. “The president had to act on a limited, temporary basis, and this is what he can offer us right now. We wish it was more...So it’s a bittersweet victory,” Jose-Mario Cabrera, Communications Director at CHIRLA said. 

CHIRLA Communications Director Jose-Mario Cabrera gives multiple media interviews in a chaotic morning at the office after President Obama's speech. (Rachel Cohrs/Neon Tommy)
CHIRLA Communications Director Jose-Mario Cabrera gives multiple media interviews in a chaotic morning at the office after President Obama's speech. (Rachel Cohrs/Neon Tommy)

READ MORE: For Immigrants, Executive Action Overdue

However, there are other more legally concerning elements of the executive actions the president presented that have gotten little press coverage. It’s easy to focus on the number 5 million, but Morris Levy, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, points out that the parameters laid out for temporary work permits are more of a legal concern.

“[The temporary work permits] create another category of resident that is not a citizen, and creates another gradation of legal and civil rights. Critics, and democratic theorists have concern about that for obvious reasons,” Levy said. 

Additionally, Obama specifically singled out Silicon Valley technology companies to receive benefits by making it easier for foreign students and entrepreneurs to work. This action excludes the interests of agribusiness, which is notoriously dependent on migrant labor. “This was not only a policy initiative, but a clear policy choice to enact the preferences of one group over those of another,” Levy said.

When it comes to working, Galvon, who is from from Mexico, voiced her concern about immigrants’ ability to work. Even though her daughter is covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), she will not be covered under President Obama’s most recent executive actions because her daughter is not U.S.-born. 

Galvon was fired from a factory job after working there for nine years due to insurance issues after a work-related injury. After that, she campaigned for immigration reform in Washington and now volunteers with CHIRLA. She is now working as a hairstylist from her home, but hopes to own her own salon one day in the future if she can obtain a Social Security number.  

“They say we take their jobs, but I don’t see any American guys in the fields, working hard. They don’t want to work there. It doesn’t matter to the immigrants if the work is in the fields, they came here to work and make a better life,” Galvon said.

The Republican Conundrum

The Republican party now finds itself in an interesting pickle. On one hand, if they change their tune and begin to seek compromise on immigration reform, Emily Ryo, Assistant Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Southern California, noted that they could be seen as “caving to pressure.” 

The issue for Republicans is the nature of conservative voters’ staunch opposition to immigration reform. In his polling on the issue, Levy found that liberals tend to be “pragmatists that believe that this is a problem, is a drain on the economy and has humanitarian implications, and favor some kind of limited program. When you look at the opposition, a large portion of it is moral in character.” Thus, lawmakers feel pressure to take a hard line since their constituents tend to feel strongly in their moral opposition to compromise. 

However, such adamant opposition to any kind of immigration reform risks alienating Latino voters and appearing obstructionist. Levy distinguished that the stance against the executive actions may not be terribly harmful in itself, “but taking opposition in a certain way with an appearance of rigidity and with a certain tone can.”

Galvon acknowledged that she had indeed broken the law, saying “We know we broke the law. We came here illegally. But this country was made for immigrants...When my family needed to get peace because we saw that [the Mexican] government had a lot of corruption and didn’t help us, we didn’t think about the law.” 

Cabrera expressed frustration over the Republican party’s stance. “Our wish is that the president wouldn’t have to do anything at all, and that Congress would have acted years ago to protect all 11 million undocumented immigrants. But the Congress in their infinite wisdom, and the Republican party as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino as they are, refuse to do that,” Cabrera said. 

With this intense conflict within the Republican party and with the Democrats, compromise for future reform seems increasingly unlikely. Ryo did propose the possibility that a Republican leader may step up and be more willing to compromise, but at this point it is unclear who that may be, if anyone at all. “Appearances complicate the landscape. It’s hard to know, but I don’t see an immediate action for reform in Congress in the near future,” Ryo said.

An Issue that Hits Home for Californians

California feels any shift in immigration policy profoundly since it has both the highest number and percentage of immigrants in the United States. 

It has also been a policy battleground throughout the years, from Proposition 187 that blocked immigrants from using social services to Governor Jerry Brown’s recent immigrant integration reforms last year that opened up licensing to undocumented immigrants and prohibited deportations for minor arrests. Since then, the LAPD has begun selectively refraining from implementing federal detention requests for undocumented immigrants.

It is difficult to determine, as of yet, the success or failure of these most recently passed progressive immigration policies. California is not the first state to implement these procedures, but Ryo said that California “can be a model for integrationist approaches.” 

The issue underlying the necessity of state laws is that each state is different, and that immigrants may have more rights in one state than another. “We wish that the federal government would take the lead so we wouldn’t have to have this kaleidoscope of policies that harm people in the next state over,” Cabrera said.

One thing that all sides agree on is that the president’s solution is temporary, and is not a comprehensive or perfect solution to the U.S. immigration problem. Immigration reform advocates want more enduring protection, while opponents resent the president’s attempts to act without consulting the legislature. 

“This is a temporary relief program, and Congress can in fact supercede the president by passing their own law. And we encourage them to do it,” Cabrera said.  

FOUR FAST FACTS: What does Obama's action really mean?

1. Protected immigrants who have citizen or legal resident children from deportation

Parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years need to pass a background check and pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the United States. They will have to reapply after three years. If they do not have a criminal record, they may also be eligible to apply for work permits.

2. Expanded DACA

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was established to help children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrant parents will be expanded. It will now include immigrants older than the age of 30 and those who arrived within a more recent time frame. This expands the number of eligible immigrants by approximately 300,000.

3. Focused deportation on criminals, recent crossers

President Obama ended the Secure Communities program, which worked with local police to identify and deport undocumented immigrants who had been arrested for crimes. He instead instituted the Priority Enforcement Program, which will focus on targeting those who have committed serious crimes as opposed to minor infractions. Enforcement officials now will have to justify that the inmate is likely deportable in order for local law enforcement to hold immigrants past their sentences.

4. Extended opportunities for STEM students and entrepreneurs

Immigrants who received degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math in the United States will now be able to work in the country longer, and foreign entrepreneurs also have more options to start a business (providing they have substantial funding from outside sources).

Reach Staff Reporter Rachel Cohrs here, or follow her on Twitter here.



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