'Bittersweet': Immigrant-Rights Advocates Respond to Obama Plan

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'Bittersweet': Immigrant-Rights Advocates Respond to Obama Plan

President's announcement lauded as 'major vindication' that still doesn't go far enough

At last year's "Rally for Citizenship," held April 10, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Annette Bernhardt/flickr/cc)

President Barack Obama's announcement of relief from deportation for about 5 million people, unveiled in a televised address Thursday night, is eliciting mixed reactions from immigrant-rights activists, families, and elected officials, some of whom say the plan goes too far—and others who say it doesn't go nearly far enough. 

"[This] victory is historic but it is incomplete."
—Cristina Jimenez, United We Dream

The centerpiece of Obama's executive action is a new program for undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. They won't be eligible for U.S. citizenship or green cards, but they will receive work permits, Social Security numbers, and have the guarantee that, unless they commit a serious criminal offense, they will not be deported. They must pass background checks and pay taxes.

The president's plan also:

  • Expands a program created by the administration in 2012 called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows young people who were brought into the country as children to apply for deportation deferrals and work permits. The plan would extend eligibility to people who entered the U.S. as children before January 2010 (the cutoff is currently June 15, 2007). It would also increase the deferral period to three years from two years and eliminate the requirement that applicants be under 31 years old. About 1.2 million young immigrants are currently eligible, and the new plan would expand eligibility to approximately 300,000 more.
  • Makes approximately 400,000 highly-skilled workers eligible for visas.
  • Shifts enforcement priorities to alleged criminals or undocumented people claimed to pose national security threats, as well as those who recently crossed the border. Obama announced he is ending the Secure Communities program, in which local police assist in holding immigrants for deportation.
  • Directs more resources to border security with an emphasis on deporting new arrivals.

The plan does not include a path to citizenship or access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. While the deferral program does apply to the parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, it does not include a way for the parents of Dreamers—people brought into the country as children—to gain legal status.

"I am disturbed by reports that the President will continue to draw lines between deserving and undeserving immigrants that our movement long ago rejected," —Angelica Chazaro, #Not1MoreWhile the speech left many breathing a sigh of relief, it was a blow for the estimated six million or more undocumented immigrants left out of the proposal.

"The news for the immigrant-rights community is a bit mixed," wrote Ryan Campbell, communications director for the DREAM Action Coalition, an advocacy and lobbying group. "On the one hand, we’re pretty stoked that millions of members of this community will now be able to more fully participate in society without having to worry about being detained in one of the GEO Groups' for-profit hellhole prisons for years before they even get a hearing.  On the other, however, it also left out millions who will face more enforcement from those angered by Obama’s policy."

Partial Victory

The president's action marks "a major step forward to repairing the damaged relationship between Latinos and Democrats," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, the online Latino advocacy organization. "Make no mistake—Democrats still have a long way to go to win back the trust and support of Latinos before 2016, but today’s announcement was an important step forward. This is a major victory for the millions of families who will no longer have to live with the daily fear of being torn apart. It's also a major vindication for undocumented immigrants and grassroots leaders who put everything on the line and dared to believe that we could hold President Obama and the Democrats to a higher bar when many in D.C. said it was impossible."

But Carmona described the announcement as only "a partial solution." Seven million immigrants, he said, "were left out of today’s proposal all together, ensuring more deportations, separated families, and the continuation of detention for nearly 34,000 immigrants, including children, as a result of a profit-generating bed mandate for private prisons. On top of all of that, border and immigrant communities are being terrorized on the border every day, facing violence and outright murder. This militarization of our border must end."

"Our inequality crisis is worsened by the exploitation of immigrant workers who toil without equal rights and fair compensation."
—Campaign for America's Future
Organizers were quick to assign credit for Thursday's gains not to Obama or his team of advisers, but to the grassroots community that pushed for immigration reform for years.

"After years of fearless organizing, fasting, civil disobedience and empowering each other, immigrant youth, our families, and allies got us to this place," declared Cristina Jimenez, co-founder and managing director at United We Dream. "But real talk? Today’s victory is historic but it is incomplete."

She continued:

Millions of Dreamers have siblings who have U.S. citizenship or green cards so their parents will qualify for this new program—and hundreds of thousands more Dreamers will now be eligible for protection. But too many of our parents, LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and friends were left out. Parents like Maria Francisca, the mother of our END Campaign Coordinator, Carolina Canizales, won’t be included. The same mother who raised a leader who has kept hundreds of family members together, won’t have the protection from our government to stay with her daughter.

We don't agree with that decision and we are determined to fight all of our community is safe. We aren’t leaving anyone behind.

Many echoed the call to keep applying pressure on the administration for further reform.

"When my mother was arrested and nearly deported, it was life-shattering for me. The fact that my mother, as well as other Dreamers’ mothers, were not included and it feels bittersweet,” said Erika Andiola, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition. "The community, not the D.C. Beltway, fought for this and won this partial victory, but today I feel motivated and more empowered to keep fighting and keep my mother home."

"Our obligation is to keep organizing and no longer allow our story to be silenced or told by others," added Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who said the president's speech was "a testament to the power and determination of migrants who have refused to remain silent in the face of unprecedented hostility, bigotry, and injustice." 

Activists expressed particular concern about ramped up security measures that could disproportionately impact those who are excluded from the plan's relief—what the ACLU described as "more boots on the throats of border residents."

"I am disturbed by reports that the President will continue to draw lines between deserving and undeserving immigrants that our movement long ago rejected," said Angelica Chazaro, a #Not1More Blue Ribbon Commission member from Seattle. "I am concerned that the President’s announcement will focus [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]’s devastating power on the members of our community that we refuse to leave behind—immigrants without children, LGBTQ immigrants, and the young immigrant men of color most likely to be targeted for arrests and convictions that will disqualify them for relief. Our idea of justice rejects using detention and deportation as a punishment for those who have been caught up in the criminal system. And we will continue to fight.”

Political Fallout

The Chicago Tribune described Obama's move as "a controversial, unilateral demonstration of his power that signaled a new phase of activism for the remainder of his presidency."

"The president’s moves reflect a second-term White House that is fed up with congressional dysfunction and that, with the midterm elections behind them, no longer has to worry about the immediate political fallout for Democrats on the ballot," Jennifer Epstein wrote at Politico.

Predictably, Republicans were apoplectic. House Speaker John Boehner declared Friday that Obama's action was "damaging the presidency" and "cemented his legacy of lawlessness." He vowed in a press conference: "I will say to you, the House will, in fact, act."

"Our obligation is to keep organizing and no longer allow our story to be silenced or told by others."
—Pablo Alvarado, National Day Laborer Organizing Network

But Obama pre-empted GOP accusations in his speech: "The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century. And 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."

In a statement, the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) backed up Obama's claim, saying the action was "well within his legitimate authority" and that "Republicans would be foolish to even try to roll [it] back."

What's more, CAF said, real reform could have a positive economic impact.

"Our inequality crisis is worsened by the exploitation of immigrant workers who toil without equal rights and fair compensation," the statement read. "The American economy will grow stronger, from the bottom up, once we end our two-tiered economic system and ensure that all workers have the same rights. Providing immigrant workers with legal status will boost their compensation and increase economic demand, growth which will even reduce long-term budget deficits."

But the AFL-CIO, which was among the groups pressing Obama to 'go big' on immigration, pointed out that the plan still leaves more than 6 million workers unprotected.

"Unfortunately, more than half of those who currently lack legal protections will remain vulnerable to wage theft, retaliation, and other forms of exploitation," said Richard Trumka, president of the labor alliance. "In addition, we are concerned by the President’s concession to corporate demands for even greater access to temporary visas that will allow the continued suppression of wages in the tech sector. We will actively engage in the rule-making process to ensure that new workers will be hired based on real labor market need and afforded full rights and protections."

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