We Changed the Immigration Reform Landscape!


This post was written by OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz.

We Changed the Immigration Reform Landscape

On Thursday night President Obama announced a set of sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration system.  This is setting in motion the most significant victory for the immigrant rights movement in more than 30 years.  While many of us sought more from the President, and while the President’s actions remain no substitute for legislative action by Congress on comprehensive immigration reform, this takes nothing away from this major step forward for immigrants, their families and communities.

Specifically, the President’s announcement included the following:

•    Clarification of the federal government’s immigration enforcement priorities;
•    Expanded deferred action for eligible parents of U.S. Citizen children and greencard holders for three years, including work permits;
•    Expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to more ‘Dreamers’;
•    Expansion of waivers to bars on legal re-entry to the United States for undocumented family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents;
•    Clarification that those with Greencards, deferred actions, and Temporary Protected Status approved for   advance parole may travel outside the U.S. without triggering bars to re-entry;
•    Expansion of ‘parole in place’ for certain undocumented family members of military personnel and veterans;
•    Protections for employers currently employing individuals eligible for DACA and deferred action of parents;
•    New opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs, EB-2 visa holders that bring special skills to the American workforce, high skilled visa holders and F-1 student visa holders, employees of multi-national firms to transfer employees to the United States
•    New regulations allowing spouses of H1-B visa holders to work and increased avenues for high skilled visa holders to change their jobs
•    Greater protections for victims of trafficking and domestic violence
•    Task forces to examine modernization of our visa systems, and ways to strengthen worker protections for immigrant visa holders
•    The end of the Government’s Secure Communities program, which will be replaced with a new program called the Priority Enforcement Program
•    A Task Force to promote immigrant integration strategies, and a process to review the current naturalization fee structure
•    A new Citizenship Awareness campaign in 10 states, including Washington State

While the President did not dedicate new resources to border security, DHS will establish three new joint task forces to manage new border enforcement strategies along the Southern Border.

In Washington State alone, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 70,000 parents of US Citizen children and Legal Permanent Residents will benefit from deferred action, and more will benefit from expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

What Does This Mean?

Within immigrant communities, some will qualify for deferred action and others will not.  For the millions that do not, the fight continues.  We are also troubled by the impression created by the President that those not covered through Deferred Action may be undeserving of relief.  Whether the President will use his power under existing law to further expand deferred action will depend on continued pressure, but the limits of the President’s announcement place greater attention on the inaction in Congress.  Republicans in the House and Senate have called the President’s actions a constitutional overreach, and they plan to take the President to court to challenge these initiatives, and are threatening to attempt to deny funding for administrative relief in 2015.  

If they do, they will only compound their anti-reform stance.  In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill.  While imperfect, the House of Representatives had the last 18 months to vote on that bill or on alternative bills, but they failed to act.  If a vote had been taken, most observers believed the votes would have been there to pass such a bill.  The House Republican Leadership chose to hold off on a vote despite tremendous pressure for action because they feared a revolt within the Republican caucus, and because they chose to prioritize the 2014 mid-term elections ahead of reform.

The President’s use of executive action means that millions of undocumented immigrant families will be protected from deportation and separation.  It also means that, over the next two years, Republicans in the House and Senate risk defining themselves based on their response to the President’s announcement.  Will they take action on reform, or will they use their power to do everything they can to tear families apart?  This choice will be most immediately felt by the Republicans vying to run for President in 2016.  Will they run on revoking the President’s executive actions, and tearing apart families?  Or will they take action on compassionate and humane immigration reform?

For the President who has been attempting to deflect the label ‘Deporter in Chief’, his announcement creates an opportunity to redefine his legacy on immigration.  Millions of families – well over 350,000 deportations each year for much of his administration – have suffered the brunt of the President’s enforcement policies.  The proof will be based on the numbers of individuals deported and families torn apart in the remaining years of his Administration.  The success of the President’s announcement will therefore depend on how many undocumented immigrants choose to apply to temporarily legalize their status, despite the swirling partisan political fight on immigration.  Our organizing will only grow stronger, encouraged by the victory we’ve won thus far, and committed to preventing more family separations and deportations.

Celebrating our Role

The President took this action because of the relentless campaign by the immigrant rights movement.  Here in Washington State, a broad coalition of organizations never gave up on pressing the President and his Administration on administrative relief.  OneAmerica held dozens of events pressing the President and his surrogates for executive action, including statewide actions in late August, and taking our case directly to Vice President Biden at a fundraising event in Seattle in early October.  Our persistent advocacy bolstered our Congressional delegation to press the President for action.  Earlier this month, members of our Congressional delegation demanded executive action, and last week, U.S. Senator Patty Murray gave a compelling speech on the Senate floor pressing the President to act.  Alongside a broad coalition of partners, we worked with the City of Seattle to pass a resolution in support of administrative relief.  And through our advocacy and the work of many more organizations, King County led the nation in opposing the Secure Communities program.  And on several occasions, OneAmerica staff and leaders met directly with the President and his staff, on our own and through national networks like the Fair Immigration Reform Movment, to bring home the point that action was necessary, now.  And on the day of the announcement, OneAmerica organized press conferences and rallies across the state to lift up the voices of impacted families and key allies, including Congressman Adam Smith, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Maud Daudon, Church Council of Greater Seattle Director Michael Ramos, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Director Jorge Baron, Washington Growers League Director Mike Gempler, and SEIU Local 6 President Sergio Salinas.

At the heart of these events were the stories of immigrants who fought for themselves and their family members, including Lisette Llerena, an undocumented mother, who took this opportunity to come out of the shadows and demand broad-based relief at a OneAmerica press conference on Thursday:

“For too long I have lived in the shadows and hid my story and status from everyone including my own children. I believe speaking my truth will not only help me be a better advocate for my children but will show the country how our immigration policies impact real families,” she said. “Because of the support of other parents and my community and knowing that administrative relief is around the corner, this week I told my younger children about our status. I have kept the secret all this years. It was really hard for me, but I know that it’s better for them to hear it from me. Today I am here sharing my history so people can understand that we exist, we are here: we are your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers. We all have the same hopes and dreams for our children.”

What Happens Next

In the coming months, OneAmerica will be working with a broad network of organizations in Washington State, including the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, to ensure that accurate information gets out to our communities and members about Administrative Relief implementation.  We have already posted a landing page where links to useful information can be found.  And organizations in Washington State have created a new website where community members can find information on upcoming events and resources.  Stay tuned.  In the coming weeks, OneAmerica will be organizing community education forums as we prepare to help thousands of Washington residents take full advantage of the President’s executive action and the DACA and deferred action for parents program.  For now, we join with other organizations in advising that there is no application yet, and that immigrants should be wary of scams that may promise help with legal assistance without delivering.

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