The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, authorized by President Obama in June of 2012 has turned out to be a much-needed testing grounds for what changes need to be made to carry out broader immigration reform. Political sciences assistant professor of University of California San Diego and researcher of DACA Tom Wong explains, “DACA represents an important trial run for a larger legalization process.”
Since DACA was announced, about 75% of all applicants have been accepted to remain in the United States. An estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants qualified for this program which is open to immigrants ages 15-30 with high school diplomas, GEDs, or are enrolled in US schools, who have not left the country since June of 2007, and have not committed any serious crimes. As was to be expected, they came forward and applied in enormous numbers. What wasn’t expected was where they would all come from.
States like California, Texas, New York, and Illinois have the highest number of Mexican immigrants. However, these assumptions created hiccups in the DACA process. While these states had the most Mexican immigrants, serving immigrants from countries besides Mexico–especially immigrants who couldn’t speak English or Spanish–needs a lot more work and a lot more resources and local organizations to support these applicants. Also, the states with the most applicants turned out to be none of the top states populated with Mexican immigrants. Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana were the states with the most applicants and underestimations of the traffic they would receive caused many a hiccup.
Another important aspect of DACA that needed some streamlining was specifying which documents were acceptable for proving continuous residence. Since employers are wary of documenting illegal workers, people were bringing forth hospital bills, social media documentation, and utility bills. It has since been made clear that utility bills and hospital bills will be accepted. The school systems in these states have also been flooded with transcript requests.
All of these hold-ups have created bottlenecks in the process that have lead to long turn-around times, during which applicants have gotten deported, visas have run out, and lives have been torn apart. At the same time, these applicants are educated, responsible members of the United States’ population and loosing them due to lengthy application processing time is not in our best interest.
In the first sixty days since DACA was announced, almost 600,000 people applied. This has not slowed down. Hopefully we can learn how to streamline application and turn around, as well as best serving all applicants and supporting the communities that will have to scramble for transcripts and utilities bills, from the challenges, surprises, and hiccups of DACA moving forward into broader immigration reform.
Source: Wides-Munoz, Laura. “Immigration Reform Gets Broader Lessons from Deferred Action,” Huffington Post. November 17th, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/18/immigration-reform-deferred-action_n_4295563.html
The Department of Justice is taking some much needed steps to protect cognitively impaired immigrants who end up in immigration court, unable to navigate legal proceedings. Unlike in criminal court, defendants currently have no right to a free lawyer in immigration court. This has resulted in people who have valid claims to remain in the United States but cannot comprehend immigration law or access their documents due to cognitive impairment or mental illness being deported to countries they barely remember of have never been to with no support. Both documented and undocumented immigrants have met this fate which in effect has caused people to be wrongfully deported simply because they are cognitively impaired.
Currently, the Department of Justice is making policy changes to protect mentally impaired defendants in removal proceedings. This includes providing cognitively impaired defendants with free lawyers once they have been identified as having mental impairments that render them unable to understand legal proceedings. Controversy may rear its head because once identified, defendants with mental impairment do not have the right to refuse representation, but overall this new policy promises to save many people from wrongful deportation.
Unfortunately free lawyers for mentally impaired immigrants is only a band aid on the puzzle that effectively causes people to be deported for being mentally ill. Even if a cognitively impaired immigrant is saved from wrongful deportation by representation, there are still statutes that trigger mandatory deportation for some petty crimes. Since petty criminality and mental illness are generally accepted to be linked, it’s only a matter of time before the trigger goes off for these people. Immigration reform on a federal level is still necessary to cure the roots of this problem, although reformed policy in the Department of Justice is definitely a step in the right direction.
Source: Murray-Tjan, Laura. “Immigration Puzzle of the Week: Do We Deport People for Being Mentally Ill?” Huffington Post. January 10, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-murraytjan/immigration-mentally-ill-deportation_b_4577314.html
Georgia senatorial primaries candidate, Republican Rep. Paul Broun explained to local news reporters, “The only way Georgia is going to change is if we have all these illegal aliens in here in Georgia [and] give them the right to vote.”
This has become a popular anti-immigration reform theory in conservative circles across the country. It is thought that if immigration reform offered the estimated 7.1 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States pathways to citizenship, they would not only all follow these pathways all the way to citizenship–which according to the proposed bill would take over a decade to complete–but also all decide to vote. This theory pays no attention to the 17.6 million Hispanic Americans under the age of 18, 93% of which are American-born citizens and belong to a demographic who tend to vote as a Democratic bloc. Either way, the Republican party is in trouble, especially if they decide to oppose immigration reform and are worried about being drowned out by Democratic Latino voters.
In 2011, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 425,000 undocumented immigrants of all ethnicities live in Georgia. This is one of the highest rates in the nation. Broun and others in conservative anti-immigration reform circles believe that undocumented immigrants who are currently barred from most federal benefits programs will access them and support their expansion, thus supporting democratic ideology and policies. Broun explains to local news reporters, “It only helps the Democrats if we legalize illegal aliens in this country who the Democrats want to put on federal welfare programs.”
Combined with his fierce anti-immigration rhetoric, comments indicting evolution and the Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell,” Representative Broun has top Republicans worried that he won’t be able to stand up to Democratic candidates in the state’s senatorial election.
Source: Sarlin, Benjy. “Georgia Republican warns ‘illegal aliens’ will turn state blue,” MSNBC. January 7, 2014. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/paul-broun-illegal-aliens-immigration-reform.
While the national House of Representatives speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) “may embrace a series of limited changers to the nation’s immigration laws,” the Senate has already passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill built on compromise. While democrats fought for improved pathways to citizenship for immigrants, republicans fought to tighter and improved border security.
A glint of hope that immigration reform legislation might actually pass through the House comes from Boehner’s new hire, Rebecca Tallent. She was the immigration adviser for many years to Senator John McCain, a republican senator who backs broad immigration reforms. Boehner has also made critical comments about Tea Party opposition to Congress’s budget deal, which has been taken as indication that he may actually be serious about immigration reform.
Although there are hints that Boehner and the house republicans are willing to move forward, they are willing to move forward on “limited” changes made step-by-step and incrementally. President Obama agrees with completing immigration reform in incremental steps as long as key provisions are not omitted, but these key provisions are exactly why the word “limited” is being used by House republicans.
Legislation that has already been approved in the Senate included both tightened border patrol and more and clearer pathways to visas and citizenship for immigrants. The bill has garnered public support from religious, business, and labor leaders across the country as well as GOP strategists and the Latino community. The aim of the bill is to strengthen border patrol along the periphery but also develop pathways to legalization and visas for agricultural laborers and high-tech workers, and provide opportunities for citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. However, the bill is stalled in house and Boehner’s agreement to try to compromise on this bill to pass it through the house falls far short of effective immigration reform, compromising on a bill already built on intensive compromise.
Source: Benen, Steve. “Boehner signals support for ‘limited’ immigration plan,” MSNBC. January 2, 2014. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/boehner-eyes-limited-immigration-plan.
Due to the inability of Congress to pass immigration reform laws on a national level, states have taken matters into their own hands. Red states have tended to tighten immigration laws and move towards making life harder for undocumented workers and ultimately removing them from their states. Blue states have tended to open up opportunities to undocumented immigrants such as access to higher education, driver’s licenses and official identification cards, and making it harder for them to be detected and deported. What this has ultimately caused is a country divided in two—states that accept undocumented residents and are working towards protecting their rights and integrating them into society and the economy, and states that are working towards giving undocumented immigrants the boot.
Three years ago, Republicans took many state house victories and prompted a wave of anti-immigration policies to be passed in red states across the United States. These policies turned local police forces into border patrols, targeting traffic stops as opportunities to identify and detain undocumented immigrants. Judicial rulings and public backlash against these laws from all sides have mitigated many of them and restricted red states from passing harsher laws, but many families have been torn apart over routine traffic stops. Getting behind the wheel can be the scariest thing an undocumented immigrant does. Also, not having access to drivers licenses and legal identification impedes opening bank accounts, seeking healthcare, and mobility.
On the flipside, blue states such as California—which has the highest immigrant population the country—is doing just the opposite. States such as New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Colorado to name a few have now made it possible for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and insurance. Many of these states have also deferred to Trust, But Verify tactics when it comes to interaction with law enforcement, which has cut drastically back on non-violent misdemeanors resulting in deportations that tear families apart.
The biggest aspect of the immigration reform debate is economics. Red and blue states both see that illegal immigration effects economic incentives, but they disagree on whether this has a positive or a negative impact. Blue states believe undocumented workers infuse their economies with younger workers and are overall a good thing for building a robust and stable economy. Red states see undocumented immigrants as stealing jobs and services from American citizens.
Undocumented workers run an enormous risk of being exploited by their employers and dealing with theft and abuse in the work place. If they come forward, they risk deportation. This is especially prevalent in the construction industry where safety standards are overlooked and in domestic service and caretaking positions where, according to Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “We hear of modern day slavery cases on a regular basis.” With the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and the tendency of people to live longer overall, this field is expanding rapidly.
In California, the Domestic Workers Bill or Rights recently passed, making these workers eligible for overtime pay. The state also passed legislation making it more difficult to detect workers in violation of immigration law by not requiring private businesses to run new hires through a federal program the verify the legal status of workers, E-Verify. On the other hand, red states are doing just the opposite.
In the past few years, Latino voters have helped to push immigration reform on the national level. Alongside this, deportation have hit record levels during these same years and have just recently started to drop. Moving forward, employment and educational opportunities, access to healthcare, and driver’s licenses and other forms of identification will be big issues for immigration policy on the national level. Federal inaction on immigration policy had torn the United States in two, as far as immigrants are concerned. However, immigrant communities even in red states with harsh legislation like Alabama are surviving and sustaining. The longer it takes for the United States congress to pass national legislation, the more divided state laws will become.
Source: Sarlin, Benjy. “New immigration laws split America in two,” MSNBC. December 31st, 2013. http://www.msnbc.com/hardball/new-immigration-laws-split-america-two.