Sometime in the next month President Obama is expected to announce changes to immigration enforcement policies, potentially relieving the fear of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants. Specifics aren’t clear, but press reports and immigrant rights advocates close to the discussions indicate that reforms on the table include widening the group of people temporarily allowed to remain and work in the United States; carve-outs for tech and agricultural interests; and changes to the way immigration authorities enforce the law in the field.
Just the prospect of a unilateral move has triggered accusations of tyranny from the right, though even conservatives are beginning to acknowledge that legal constraints on the president are not clear cut. Already, the executive actions are a major political event. But undocumented immigrants and their advocates are increasingly concerned that the practical impact of Obama’s orders will be far more limited than the hype suggests—and they’re trying to raise the bar for what bold action really means.
Arturo Carmona, executive director of the social justice group Presente.org, said his organization was prepared to reject the option reported to be at the top of the list of reforms the White House is considering because it is not inclusive enough. That proposal is an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows some immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay and work, to include their parents and those of US citizens. Such an extension would likely cover four to five million people at most—a number that Carmona called “a non-starter.”
“This proposal promises more deportations, more families being separated,” he told me. “This is not what we’ve been working so hard for.”
Marisa Franco, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said that expanding DACA for such a select group of people was “bottom-shelf stuff,” adding, “The president can and should do more.”
On Wednesday, eleven undocumented immigrants launched a campaign to encourage Obama to consider extending relief broadly, “to all individuals who are integral members of our evolving American community,” as they wrote in a letter to the director of Homeland Security. The eleven, who asked that their own deportations be deferred, represent a range of circumstances. “Our families need urgent relief now, and here’s the key question—just how inclusive and humane will President Obama’s executive action be?” the activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is one of the eleven, said at the National Press Club in Washington. “Who will be left out, and why?”
Kamal Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups coordinating the “1 in 11 million” campaign, said that deferred action and work permits should be available to anyone who can demonstrate strong ties to the US. “Their US citizen family members, their length of time in the US, whether they’ve contributed to the US economy somehow, whether they work in a critical industry, whether they’ve created jobs—all of those things should be weighed in before we decide to expel somebody from the community,” he said. “We don’t want to get it half right. If we’re going to try to insert justice back into the immigration system, lets go all the way and develop policies that are consistent with our values.”
It’s hard to estimate how many people might receive relief under that subjective policy, but other immigrant rights groups have pointed to the estimated 8 million people who would be protected from deportation under the comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate last year as a concrete minimum. That ask has been backed up by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and several top Democrats including Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Nancy Pelosi. “It would be my hope that the president’s lawyers would advise him on the broadest possible prosecutorial discretion,” Pelosi said in an interview with Univision earlier in August.
But Carmona is troubled that Democrats who’ve called for bold executive action in the past have lately been quiet. He complained that he’s “not seeing messages from the left” to raise expectations, which Obama has warned activists they need to “right-size.” Carmona isn’t not the only one concerned. Last week, a coalition of thirty groups cautioned Democrats not to throw immigrants under the bus in the hopes that doing so will help them keep the Senate.
“To be clear, any attempts by our ‘allies’ in Congress to delay or dilute administrative reforms will be viewed as a betrayal of Latino and immigrant communities with serious and lasting consequences,” the coalition wrote in a letter obtained by Politico. “Inaction and delay in the name of perceived political expediency would be both morally outrageous and politically disastrous. We will not forgive and we will not forget those who stand in the way of the relief our families so desperately need.”
As advocates press for expansive administrative relief, they’re also concerned about what the situation will be like for people who are ultimately excluded. As troubling as the record number of people removed from the country during Obama’s tenure are the ways in which they’ve been caught up in the deportation machine—by an agency with poor oversight that has used racial profiling and partnerships with local police to net as many deportable immigrants as funding allows. Whether the administration will do anything to make sure immigration agents in the field actually exercise discretion is a key question.
A more specific priority for immigrant rights groups is ending Secure Communities, a data-sharing program that entangles local police with federal immigration authorities and has failed to achieve its goal of increasing removals of noncitizens who’ve committed serious crimes. “We don’t think you can reform a failed program,” Franco said.
The idea that bold executive action will hurt Democrats has currency within the Beltway. But it’s also possible that an administrative move that’s perceived as weak will sever the threads tying Latino voters to Democrats, threads that have frayed over several years as the administration deported record numbers of immigrants. “The president has zero credibility with the immigrant rights movement,” Carmona said. Alice Ollstein has a great report over at ThinkProgress of how frustration with the slow pace of reform is coming back to haunt Democratic lawmakers, despite their attempts to blame Republicans for inaction. Franco told me that activists are already starting to talk about “dramatic escalation” in the event that the White House delays or significantly dilutes the executive orders, including work stoppages, and said that voting could be called into question.
Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center took a more guarded tone. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “This administration’s record on immigration has not been great. We think the president has an opportunity to turn that around in the coming weeks.”