Almost a month into the new year, a cautious optimism seems to be growing among those in the local undocumented immigrant population as they consider what President Barack Obama’s recent changes to federal deportation practices might mean for them.
In November, Obama signed an executive action that will halt deportations for an estimated four million undocumented immigrants. The change, which the president made in the absence of any comprehensive immigration reform effort by Congress, is not guaranteed to remain in place beyond Obama’s time in office and will not change anyone’s actual immigration status. It will, however, have a significant effect on the lives of those who qualify and set the pace for what is sure to be a heated debate on immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Reaction to the president’s move among local immigrants who might qualify and those who work with the undocumented population has been hopeful. In an interview, Jeannie Kain, an attorney with the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), noted that the executive action will allow people to “finally come out of the shadows.” She also said that those who have contacted IIIC for help in applying come from a wide range of places, including Ireland, various Central American and African countries and a few Asian countries.
Of major concern to a lot of clients is the ability to finally return home to see their families. “The big thing that they’re interested in is travel, particularly among our Irish clients,” Kain said. “Many of them have been here for years and years, and they’ve missed all sorts of family occasions.”
In last week’s State of the Union address, the president said that attempts to “[refight] past battles on immigration” would “earn my veto,” an apparent reference to legislation passed by the Republican-led House last week that would effectively roll back his executive action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that his chamber will try to pass the House bill.
The executive action affects two main groups of people: Under a program called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), it protects immigrants who have children who are US citizens or legal permanent residents who have resided in the United States for at least five years. Secondly, it expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program initiated by the president in June 2012. DACA covers children, popularly referred to as “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. The expanded eligibility requirements eliminate the previous cut-off age of 31 and allow applications from residents who have arrived as recently as 2010.
No one is automatically covered by the executive action. Rather, people are eligible to apply for deferred action and must reapply every three years.
For her part, Kain was quick to underscore the tenuous nature of the change, saying, “It’s mixed, because on one hand it sort of gives people some peace of mind, but on the other hand it’s not that much peace of mind because it’s only good for three years.”
John Foley, an attorney who focuses on immigration issues, noted in an interview that he is seeing significant interest as well in the wake of the president’s actions, although he currently can only do initial assessments of potential clients’ situations. “Basically we’re just kind of compiling basic information and telling them what [documents] they’re going to need,” he said, “We’re waiting to get more from USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] before we actually start meeting with them and start charging them fees.”
Foley added that the president’s changes are significant, but they cannot solve all the problems that clients might have. One such group, he said, is made up of those who arrived in the United States from a country that is not required to provide a visa for entry into the United States if the person stays here for less than 90 days. He said that those who have overstayed this kind of visa waiver are “stuck here,” because if they try to leave, they will be banned from returning to the United States for ten years.
Daniela, a native of Brazil who lives in the Boston area with her husband and four children, described for the Reporter the family’s immigration history and the multiple ways that the change will affect their daily lives. She and her husband arrived in the United States legally on a tourist visa, but now reside here illegally because they overstayed that visa. Their first three children became covered under the original 2012 DACA program, and their fourth child was born in the United States as a “surprise” when Daniela was 39 years old. She and her husband are eligible to apply under DAPA due to their baby’s status as an American citizen.
“Thank God for giving me my baby,” she exclaimed.
DAPA will have several practical effects on Daniela and her husband’s quality of life. They will receive employment authorization, which will make them eligible to apply for a Social Security card and, in turn, a driver’s license and a credit card. She says her husband, who is currently limited to construction and landscaping work that pays low rates in cash only, will be able to get a better job. She hopes that with a credit card, they might build enough credit to one day buy a house. They will be able to “drive without fear,” noting that they have driven without one because “we had to.”
She says that equally important to her is the emotional impact.
“Some people treat you as a person,” she says. “And other people…sometimes they treat you very bad because you don’t speak [English] well or because they figured out ‘that person don’t have documents.’”
DAPA will not grant Daniela citizenship, but even having some form of official recognition will “help me to feel like a person,” she says.
The Asian Outreach Unit (AOU) of the Greater Boston Legal Services noted that regulations and applications for the DACA expansion will not be available until the end of next month and for DAPA not until May. “We strongly advise those who are interested in this immigration relief to not pay money to anyone who claims they can help file an application right away,” the AOU said in a press statement. “Instead, we suggest prospective applicants save money, start collecting documents [and] consult a lawyer regarding eligibility.”