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Immigrant Rights ‘Bump in the Road’

Alina Mogilyanskaya Mar 11, 2015

"We are confident that the process will continue and you’ll eventually be able to apply,” said attorney Nicholas Katz, in Spanish, to a room of some 30 immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens, on the evening of February 24. It was a week after a federal judge issued an injunction against the expansion of President Barack Obama’s administrative relief for immigrants, effectively grinding the rollout of the programs to a halt.

Katz and organizer Vicente Mayorga then led the immigrants through a 28-question worksheet that would help staffers at Make the Road New York (MRNY), a community-based organization, determine their potential eligibility for immigration relief. Despite the legal limbo in which the new federal programs — which could grant more than 4 million immigrants work authorization and protection from deportation — now reside as a result of the injunction, they and immigrant rights organizers around the country are pressing ahead with preparing people to apply.

“I’d like to have a paper and not live in the dark,” said Graciela Flores, 39, after the immigration relief workshop concluded. She emigrated from Mexico 17 years ago and is working off the books to support three children, two of them U.S. citizens. “How to explain to a 7-year-old that mama goes back to Mexico because DAPA is stopped?”

In New York City, an estimated 250,000 immigrants are eligible for the two programs: DAPA, for undocumented parents of U.S. citizen or permanent resident children, and the expansion of the 2012 DACA program, for immigrants who came to the United States as children. They were challenged in a lawsuit filed by Texas and 25 other mostly red states after being announced by Obama on November 20. The plaintiffs filed in Brownville, Texas, the district of notoriously anti-immigrant judge Andrew Hanen.

“It’s no secret that Republican governors went cherry-picking for a conservative judge who has made a name for himself on this issue,” said Daniel Altschuler, community outreach and research coordinator at MRNY. “His ruling, while very troubling, was not terribly surprising.”

The Obama administration has since filed for an emergency stay of the injunction in Judge Hanen’s court, and as The Indypendent went to press, he had not yet ruled on it. It is widely expected that Hanen will not grant the stay and that the motion, along with the administration’s appeal, will go to the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country.

The timing of the programs’ rollout will remain uncertain as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts. DAPA was slated to begin taking applications in May, and expanded DACA, which opens the 2012 program to childhood arrivals older than 30, on February 18.

It may take up to two months for the courts to make a final ruling on the stay and between four months and a year on the appeal, according to National Immigration Law Center attorney Alvaro Huerta, who worked on an amicus brief in the case.

U.S. courts have repeatedly affirmed the executive’s discretionary authority over immigration enforcement. Emphasizing this precedent, the Obama administration, immigrant rights advocates and their Democratic allies have lined up behind the message that the injunction is only a “bump in the road.”

“We want these programs to be implemented as soon as possible, because we don’t want people to be discouraged,” Huerta said. “To the extent that the injunction is having a negative effect, the community is confused and needs information on what’s going to happen next.”

The injunction does not apply to the original DACA program, which continues to take applications, or to the new enforcement guidelines that Obama paired with his DAPA and DACA announcement in November. Those directives instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus resources on deporting immigrants with certain kinds of criminal convictions and prior deportation orders, as well as new arrivals. Obama has said that even with the legal uncertainty over administrative relief, those who qualify “should be in a good place,” though enforcement data for the period since the guidelines went into effect on January 5 have not been made available.

Obama is facing a barrage of attacks over his immigration policies from GOP hardliners. Hanen’s ruling came last month amid a fierce inside-the-Beltway scuffle over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which congressional Republicans tried to tie to a measure that would defund the administrative relief programs.

While the GOP ultimately lost that fight, any hope for a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants continues to languish alongside a long-untouched immigration reform bill in Congress.

“We’ve always been listening to the politicians,” said Leonor Rojas, in Spanish, after the Queens immigration workshop. She immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1991 and like her friend Graciela, is still undocumented. “The problem is they aren’t listening to us.”


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