I was in the Copernicus Community Center last week, in the heart of Chicago’s Polish community, when President Obama stood in front of a diverse crowd of Chicagoans and made his case in support of the executive actions he announced on November 20. There was energy, there was excitement, and there was a sense of success. Finally after six years of waiting during his presidency, after more than two decades of waiting since the last legislative change, we were celebrating an important step forward.
At this point, we have had the opportunity to study the bundle of releases, memos, and other documents that made up the executive action announcement. We know that plan includes expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and a new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). There will be new ways that entrepreneurs can contribute to our country, an expansion of the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT) and a promise to “modernize and improve the immigrant visa process.”
It has been an emotional time for many of our clients in the immigrant communities. Practitioners in Chicago have seen a range of reactions depending on the way the program will affect their clients and their families. Some have broken down crying, with tears of joy because of the hope engendered by the new deferred action options, or tears of sadness and frustration that they or their loved ones won’t be eligible to apply. But that afternoon in the Copernicus Center, representatives of Latino, Polish, Asian, Irish, African and other communities gathered together to celebrate an important step forward for many of their members.
However, not all of the provisions in the executive action will benefit immigrant communities. The executive action includes further militarization of the border and a continued commitment to massive expansion of family detention and deportations. The conditions and lack of due process that our pro bono members are seeing in detention centers like Artesia and Karnes represent violations of U.S. humanitarian and asylum law and the traumatization of children and mothers.
The President’s action could have also done more for business. An effective immigration policy needs to drive innovation, commerce and job creation. The executive action promises to provide some foreign students with helpful workarounds to the constraints of the H-1B cap, will hopefully ease some of the pressure of the employment based green card backlogs, and seeks to increase immigrant worker mobility. But it does not provide the necessary fundamental changes to the system that employers need for them to be able to attract the best and brightest talent so that our economy can thrive.
The executive action is not perfect, and it does not go as far as many had hoped. But it can and will change lives for the better and provide some relief to U.S. business. For those in the immigrant communities who will be able to emerge from the shadows, there will be many fresh chances to begin new lives with more opportunity, stability and dignity.
Unfortunately, notarios and other unscrupulous individuals are already emerging to profit from this moment of hope and excitement, often defrauding immigrants, and in some cases leading to denial of benefits or even deportation. Here in Chicago, AILA lawyers are working hard with our colleagues in the non-profit service sector, Congressman Gutierrez, the City of Chicago and other allies to educate the community to minimize the risk to this vulnerable population.
Last week, among elected officials, civic leaders and members of the community, I had the opportunity to share a moment of celebration with the President in what has been a long and frustrating struggle to move immigration reform forward. That afternoon, we emerged energized and ready to move forward.
The President’s executive action was an exciting development but it is a stop-gap measure. Now Congress needs to do its job and provide us with the legislation for an immigration system that stimulates economic growth, promotes family unity and upholds the standards of fairness and due process that underlie our country’s legal and moral fabric.
Now is the time to harness our moment of celebration and move into next year with renewed energy and focus to achieve real reform.
Written by Marketa Lindt, AILA Secretary