A year after Obama's executive action, the undocumented remain steeped in fearA year after Obama's executive action, the undocumented remain steeped in fear
Activists are optimist that the president's immigration measure for undocumented parents will survive its legal challenges.
Their last name isn’t really González. They asked to remain anonymous, because they've been undocumented for more than 15 years. They were born in western Guatemala. They came to the United States to escape from violence and poverty. “All this time we haven’t had any papers, and that’s very difficult,” Antonia says. “Sometimes we’re very frightened when we see the police, but we have to go on living.”
A year ago, on November 20, the González family had celebrated the announcement of an executive action by President Barack Obama. One part of it was a program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, which would have prevented the deportation of some 5 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The other part was an expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which would have protected some DREAMers that had been left out of Obama's initial executive action in 2012.
“We have four children who were born here: one is 12, the other 10, the third one is 7, and the little girl is 5. They’re all Americans, but the two of us have no papers,” says Antonia, who hoped to benefit from DAPA. “And we don’t have a criminal record,” she emphasizes.
One of the measure’s main requirements was for applicants not to have committed any crimes. “We’ve shown good behavior all these years,” says Antonia. “But we still have to wait because the measure isn’t working.”
On December 3, only two weeks after Obama made his announcement, a group of 26 states (24 of them governed by Republicans) took legal action against his measure, arguing that the president had exceeded his executive powers and that his executive action violated the Constitution. On February 16, a federal judge in Texas blocked the measure, with only 48 hours to go before it took effect. The judge argued that the government had not allowed for public comments on the measure, since it hadn't published certain details about the measure in the Federal Registry ahead of time.
The Justice Department responded swiftly with two emergency appeals, aimed at moving forward with the executive action. Neither worked. In May, it pushed the case before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which decided last week to sustain the Texas ruling.
“Imagine the sadness,” said Antonia. “We had such high hopes, but we’re still just the same as before: without papers, with four American children, and afraid of being deported.”
The last resort
A day after the appeals court ruling, the Obama administration said the Justice Department “remains committed to taking steps that will resolve the immigration litigation as quickly as possible.”
A spokesperson said the Justice Department “disagrees with the Fifth Circuit’s adverse ruling and intends to seek further review from the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“We’re waiting to hear what the government attorneys will do,” said Nora Sándigo, executive director of Fraternidad Americana in Miami, to Univision Noticias. “Once we have that information, we will determine how we can help and what we can do in order for the case to be successful and become active.
“I am confident we’re going to win this,” said the activist, who is a legal representative for more than 800 children with at least one parent who fears being deported. “We’re going to have justice. We believe it’s a good time for us to be heard. The president has very little time left, but we think that if it’s (appealed) fast we’ll be successful.”
Ezequiel Hernández, an attorney, says there's a chance the Supreme Court will issue an opinion on the matter toward the end of summer of 2016. If the court does not reverse it by then, Hernández says, “the decision will be postponed until after 2017, when President Obama will no longer be in the White House.”
Immigration activists refuse to let the measure die out. “The fight goes on,” Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, told Univision Noticias. “This Friday, a year after the announcement, we’re going to hold events, among them a march and a press conference in front of the Supreme Court building. That will be the beginning of mobilizations aimed at having the justices of the highest court rule in our favor as soon as possible.”
Among the planned activities, there will also be a graduation ceremony for students who qualify for DACA; Torres said that “a congressman – Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer – will probably be handing them their diplomas.”
He added that the appeals court ruling “was to be expected,” but that the immigrant community “is convinced” that, at the end of the day, “history and justice will be on our side.”
“Meanwhile, we must keep working and heed calls from our organizations. We should be ready to act civically but firmly. We’re going to demand that the Supreme Court implement President Obama’s executive action,” the director said.
Also in California
Protests will also be carried out in California. “We want to remind people that, a year ago, the great news was heard that we would have this longed for benefit,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota. “We'll have demonstrations in some places and press conferences aimed at mobilizing our community, at keeping them from letting down their guard.”
“On Saturday, we’re going to hold workshops on citizenship, voter registration and raising awareness among our people that they need to participate. This is no time to remain passive,” he said.
A campaign by several national organizations is targeting 8.8 million permanent legal residents who meet the requirements for becoming United States citizens.
“Once we accomplish that, the next step is to have them register to vote and participate in the 2016 presidential election,” he added. “Those who temporarily blocked the executive action will soon remember us forever, when they see our decision at the ballot box.”
“We’re working with information, telling people to vote for candidates who will solve our problems, and one of those is the immigration reform that our people have been seeking for many years,” he said.
In addition to rallies and press conferences, there will be protests on Friday in some cities with large Hispanic populations, said Kica Matos, director for immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change (CCC).
She said the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) “is mobilizing its entire network” and has planned “at least 30 events throughout the country, including protests, demonstrations and press conferences.”
For example, the Workers Defense Project and the Texas Organizing Project are planning a three-day pilgrimage that begins at the Women’s Detention Center and ends at Governor Greg Abbott’s mansion. “We expect participation by thousands of people,” she said.
On what she expects from the Supreme Court, Matos explained, “We’re convinced that the action taken by the President stands on solid constitutional ground,” and said she feels assured of a victory.
The activist added that the immigrant community “has to continue to fight and advocate for DAPA and DACA, and we also have to do everything possible to register the largest possible number of voters so that our voices will have an impact on the next general elections,” when Americans go to the ballot box to elect Obama’s successor.
Immigrant organizations are aware that a permanent solution for the 11.3 million undocumented is not at stake with the executive action. Instead, that solution is in the hands of the Congress.
The immigration measure announced by Obama a year ago “is just a breath of fresh air,” Maribel Hastings, executive advisor to America’s Voice, said to Unvision Noticias. “The permanent solution we are defending will only be obtained by the legislative route, but the Republican Party is bound and determined to seek scapegoats and advance its agenda of fear.”
Hastings is referring to the immigration reform bill approved on June 27, 2013 in the Senate by a wide majority (68-32). The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives blocked the measure, which led Obama to take an emergency measure in order to improve conditions for some 5 million undocumented people.
“Anti-immigrant groups are taking advantage of the recent attacks in Paris in order to equate terrorism with immigration”, said Hastings. “They incite fear and prejudice, but we expect that this anti-immigrant atmosphere will not influence the decision by the Supreme Court to accept and hear the case and issue a favorable opinion.”
Hope among the tears
The optimism of some organizations and activists stands in contrast with the tears and desolation that weight down upon the undocumented, who have not been able to apply for relief under the executive action.
“We bear a great sadness within us,” Hilda de Guzmán said to Noticias Univision. She is a Salvadoran immigrant who has been in the U.S. for five years. In September, she was part of the 100 Mile March to ask Pope Francis to intercede before Obama and Congress on behalf of the undocumented.
“We have done all sorts of things, even fasting, in order to create pressure and promote our cause, but the courts have stood in the way of the gift the president gave us. We fought hard but saw no results. But we’re not going to give up. It hurts us, but we’re going to keep on fighting and wait for fresh news,” she said.
Guzmán says she does not qualify “for either DAPA or DACA” and that her battle is convincing Congress to pass immigration reform. “The executive action is important. If it's enacted, it will force Congress to debate immigration reform and find a permanent solution to the matter of the undocumented. We need it so we can remain here and continue to work for the benefit of our families and of the United States.”
So far, during Obama's two terms as president, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has deported almost 2.5 million undocumented immigrants. During the first 11 months of fiscal year 2015, the number of deportations went down to 214,264 – the lowest figure since 2009 – and 41.1% of these individuals had no criminal record, according to this federal agency.
“That's our greatest fear,” said Antonia González, “that they might grab us and deport us, making us abandon our children here in the United States. It would be terrible.”