The architect of President Obama’s executive action, which would protect about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, said immigrants and their advocates should be preparing now for when the changes take effect.
Although a Texas judge has halted implementation of the changes, Felicia Escobar, special assistant to the president for immigration policy, said, “ultimately, we will be able to implement this because it’s fully legal. In the meantime, what we’re asking everyone to do is to get ready,” such as by assisting eligible undocumented immigrants with completing applications for new programs.
Immigrants with work permits are protected and can renew their permits, if needed, while the legal questions are being decided, she said.
Escobar, who spoke at New Haven’s Fair Haven School, in a program sponsored by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, said the changes entailed in the President’s executive action would boost the nation’s GDP by as much as $250 billion over 10 years.
She stressed that it was Obama’s preference to craft new immigration laws in collaboration with Congress, but “it has been a struggle to get Congress to focus on this. It was something the President really wanted to get accomplished during his time in office.”
When it became clear that the U.S. House of Representatives was not going to approve an immigration reform bill, Obama brought together Escobar and other experts to look at what his office could legally do to improve the situation.
“The big thing we did was actually try to provide a process for people in this country, who want to remain in our country and are already contributing to our country,” she said.
“You need to have hope and continue to push us,” Escobar said, urging activists and undocumented immigrants to continue to share their stories with other Americans.
Among immigrants, “there’s a lot of fear,” she said. “So we need a lot of us to educate people.”
Escobar noted that the President’s executive action is distinct from the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has deferred deportations and provided work permits for nearly 600,000 younger immigrants nationally, including about 5,000 in Connecticut, known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the US illegally as children.
What would change
Obama’s executive action would allow deportation deferrals for undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years. Granted for three years at a time, the deferrals would give immigrants the right to work. Applicants would be required to pass criminal and national security background checks.
DACA would be expanded so that children who entered the country before January 2010 – instead of the current June 15, 2007, cutoff – would be eligible, and deferrals under DACA would change from two years to three years. The requirement that applicants be under 31 years old would be eliminated.
Another change would be a new program to facilitate visas for people who invest in the U.S. and those who pursue science, technology, engineering and math degrees. Also, high-skilled workers would be able to move or change jobs more easily.
The executive action also includes tighter border controls, with those suspected of terrorism and violent crimes, as well as gang members and recent border-crossers, put at the top of the deportation-priority list.
After delivering her prepared remarks, Kica Matos, vice chairwoman of the board of directors of the Community Foundation, moderated a discussion that included Escobar; Sandra Treviño, executive director of Junta for Progressive Action; John Jairo Lugo, an organizer with Unidad Latina en Acción; and Lucas Codognolla, lead coordinator of Connecticut Students for a Dream.
Lugo expressed concern about the majority of undocumented immigrants who would not benefit from the changes the President’s executive action would bring. He asked those in the audience who would benefit to stand up and, then, those who would not to rise. The group of those who would not benefit was slightly larger.
During the program, a group of attendees stood up in the audience and displayed a banner that read, “Ni Una Más Deportación, Not One More.”
Members of Unidad Latina en Acción, Comunidad Inmigrante de East Haven and the Ecuadorean Civic Committee distributed an open letter to Escobar and the President, seeking answers to questions about ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), such as whether it is continuing to deport community members in violation of Homeland Security directives; whether programs forcing local police and agencies to take part in immigration enforcement have been discontinued or merely re-branded; whether the agency could deport persons convicted of crimes based on unlawful or biased policing, such as occurred in East Haven; and whether the deportations of those trying to reunite with their families or escape difficult conditions would continue.
“I think the people need to own this issue,” and not be satisfied with the changes contained in the executive action, Lugo said. “This is not the end of the struggle; 43,000 in Connecticut will benefit, 80,000 will not. What are we going to do with them?”
Undocumented need to be wary
After the program, Lugo said, “there are a lot of people who don’t know about the executive order and at the same time there are people who know but don’t know what to do.”
Given the confusion, he said it’s likely that con artists will be trying to take advantage, making false promises that they can help the undocumented successfully apply to the program, taking their money and delivering nothing. “That’s why education at this stage is very important,” he said.
Likewise, Treviño stressed the importance of “informing the community about getting documents and saving for application fees, and (ensuring that immigrants are) not being taken by persons who say they can help them for a fee.”
At this point, she said, no application fees have been set, so there is no reason for any undocumented immigrant to be paying anyone to help them.
The educational and outreach effort “is not one organization’s job,” Treviño said. All who are in contact with immigrant communities need to be involved.
How they became activists
Asked by Matos about the roots of his activism, Codognolla said that before DACA, he experienced his own moments of fear when he thought he might be apprehended by police and deported. He’s heard lots of stories of discrimination and cruelty to immigrants.
Things changed as he and other students who had been brought to the U.S. as children got together, “wanting to share their story, and really coming from a place of not being scared anymore.”
CT Students for a Dream was formed, working for legislation enabling dreamers to qualify to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. DACA “allowed me to do something I really love,” he said. Now his organization and all of the others that work with immigrants need to work together, to reduce confusion and prepare to help people who can benefit from the President’s executive action.
Though she was born and raised in Texas, Treviño has experienced discrimination. “When I came to New Haven in 2003 after being accepted for a social work fellowship at the Yale Child Studies Center, I couldn’t find anybody willing to rent to me,” she said.
Having grown up in a part of the U.S. where her family had lived for generations, starting before Texas was part of the U.S., that came as a shock, and it spurred her to activism. “I had never experienced discrimination like that and I don’t think anybody else should experience it either,” she said.