In a new set of immigration reforms announced last week, US president Barack Obama has outlined a plan that will let millions of illegal immigrants avoid deportation, though he also emphasized that this is a temporary measure and has urged Congress to make it permanent.
Under the new reforms, any person who has been living in the US for at least five years or is a parent of a citizen or permanent US resident can now apply for citizenship. People who arrived in the US after January 1, 2010 are not eligible, and all applicants under this plan will have to undergo security and background checks, prove their eligibility, and pay taxes.
“We’re going to offer the following deal. If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes – you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” Obama said in his 16-minute speech.
Supporters of the immigration reforms were in a jubilant mood, with many gathering outside the White House waving flags and holding up placards in support of the move. With the threat of deportation lifted, they feel the new reforms would make the immigration system more just.
However, the president warned that the rules should not be mistaken for what they are not. Elaborating further, Obama said that the new deal does not apply to anyone who has arrived in the US recently or will arrive in the US illegally in the future. Also it does not grant citizenship or permanent residence as that is for the Congress to decide. For now all it does is prevent the deportation of eligible immigrants.
Republicans have criticized the reforms, saying that the president does not have the constitutional authority to choose who to deport. They have also voiced their outrage over illegal immigrants gaining the right to claim the right to live in the US on the basis of their US born children.
“This unlawful, blatant executive action would legalize more than 5 million people here illegally. This president is single-handedly creating a constitutional crisis and hurting the citizens he took an oath to protect and defend,” said Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert.
Under the new reforms, the following groups of people qualify to get an opportunity to remain in the US:
- Parents of US citizens or lawful permanent residents who have been in the US since January 1, 2010, and who are not ‘enforcement priorities’
- People who were brought to the US illegally as children before the age of 16
But while the reforms are seen as a step in the right directions by immigrant rights activists, their joy may be short lived. It will be several months before the federal government is ready to accept applications under the new scheme, and by then Republicans will have gained control of Congress and in all likelihood have taken steps to reverse the policy.
The president’s speech however, was aimed squarely at winning over all doubters. Quoting the Old Testament, Obama said, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger…for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.”
The main beneficiaries of this policy are expected to be the illegal immigrants who are parents of children born in the US. These children – disparagingly called ‘anchor babies’ in heated debates on the issue – automatically get US citizenship at the moment, but their parents do not. With the new policy the parents of such children can apply to remain in the US.
Critics have pointed out that Obama’s policy will give legal residency rights to more people than the total number of jobs created by the Obama administration in the six years Obama has been in office.
“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own. That’s just not how our democracy works,” said Ohio Republican and House Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner was supported by South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan. “What the president has done is unprecedented, unconstitutional, and an affront to the American people,” he said.
Sheriff Scott Jones from Sacramento County, California, added his voice to the debate by issuing a plea to Obama, narrating instances of criminals who murdered people after multiple deportations. “The problem I have is I can’t tell which ones are good and which ones are evil, and neither can you. By their very definition they are undocumented. This is not about racism – it is about an increasingly violent and uncertain world in which we are inadequately protected,” said Jones.
Requesting a permanent solution instead of a temporary fix, Jones added “Mr. President, my request to you today can simply be stated: make immigration reform a priority. I do not care which reform you choose. Pathway to citizenship, guest work program, or any of the other innovative programs that currently exist. But deferred action or amnesty is deferring this crisis. It is not reform, it’s simply giving up. It does nothing to make America or the undocumented population any safer,” he said.
Not everyone shares these concerns, however. Praise for the Obama’s speech came from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, and chairman of the immigration task force with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “President Obama is using his pen to help the country and we celebrate his courage. I am going to sign up the families that are covered, keep fighting for the families that are not covered, and we are going to make the City of Chicago a model for the rest of the country,” he said.
However he pointed out that there was little hope of Obama’s policy being turned into law. “We all must recognize that no executive action is a substitute for legislation, so the fundamental challenge of getting legislation through the Republican-controlled House remains the same,” Gutierrez said.
The policy was also cheered by Labor unions, a major Democratic constituency. “Obama’s push for immigrants’ rights is about the long struggle of our nation to live up to our ideals of welcoming hard-working newcomers and expanding full rights to all who strive for the American Dream,” said George Gresham, president of a Service Employees International Union local, the largest healthcare union in the US.
The new policy will also protect people who arrived in the US illegally as children. The White House has stated that Obama’s policy will protect those “who arrived in the US before turning 16 years old and before January 1, 2010, regardless of how old they are today.” However the White House has repeatedly emphasized that this move is only a temporary solution and that they have asked for backing and support from Congress to make it permanent.
“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” said the president.
The new policy is based on the belief that there is a link between border security and deportation reprieves. By legalizing millions of US residents, the government will not be obligated to spend valuable resources in tracking, capturing and deporting of such people anymore. This additionally will make resources available to patrol the US-Mexico border, and help in blocking off illegal immigrants at the point most of them enter the US.
Advocates are concerned about the surge in the green card applications and related queries following the announcement of this policy. California-based immigration lawyer Annaluisa Padilla says she has been receiving double the usual number of calls ever since the reforms were announced. “It’s like the golden ticket. Everybody who is calling my office is asking how can I get a work permit under Obama’s program? I am like, there is no Obama program yet,” she said.
Several immigrant support groups are planning information campaigns about the policy, targeting immigrant communities. In Florida, immigrant advocates will start a text messaging system along with a hotline service in Spanish and English to keep their community members informed. The text messaging system will also be implemented by the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
Clinics will be opened in New York by not-for-profit organizations and immigration advocates to help screen immigrants who qualify under the program. Whereas in Southern California, advocacy groups plan to hold workshops to educate people about the order.
Many illegal immigrants from Mexico are relying on Obama’s policy to help them gain legal status in the US. However, lawyers have been warning them not to get their hopes up too high as Republican lawmakers are most likely going to impede Obama’s plan. “What I am telling my families to do is be prepared for war. We’re going to see a legislative arm do whatever they can to stop the president,” says Jessica Dominguez, immigration lawyer from South California.