Obama announces largest immigration overhaul in decades

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Ricardo Martinez and Gloricela Lorenzo were proud, but hardly surprised, when their teenage daughter confronted House Speaker John Boehner at his favorite Washington D.C. diner a year ago, pushing him for answers on immigration.

That’s how the Redmond couple raised their five children — to be confident and strong.

Now, as the parents of U.S.-born children, they could be among more than four million undocumented immigrants nationwide shielded from deportation and given employment authorization, under the terms of a politically contentious executive order President Obama announced Thursday night.

Those who qualify, including an estimated 77,000 people in Washington state, could begin applying for relief as soon as next spring.

“We feel hopeful,” Martinez, 47, said, referring to their chances. “It would be liberating to be able to work without some sort of threat looming above our heads.”

Added Lorenzo: “While we are grateful…we hope that we don’t become complacent. Work permits are temporary; we need a permanent solution. We need something that will definitively cement our safety here in the United States and keep our families together.”

The president’s action, which he will pursue without Congressional approval, would have the biggest impact on the nation’s immigration system in a generation, and comes after more than a decade of failed attempts in Congress to address the nation’s immigration problems.

The plan will allow millions of people now in this country illegally to emerge from the shadows and legitimately seek employment.

Other details of the plan:

• The undocumented immigrant parents of U.S citizens and legal permanent residents will be temporarily exempted from deportation, and would be granted social security numbers and three-year work permits.

• To qualify, they will have to have a clean criminal record, be able to pass a background check and pay taxes.

• Additionally, the plan will expand the criteria for a 2012 program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which temporarily exempted young people who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

• The plan eliminates an age limit for participating in DACA and makes January 2010 — rather than June 2007 — the date by which undocumented immigrants must have arrived in the country to qualify.

• There are also provisions to reinforce border security and to more quickly remove border-crossers and clear up the immigration court backlog.

• The plan makes accommodations for nearly 500,000 high-skilled workers caught in a visa backlog, as well as for foreign graduates of U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In his Thursday night speech, Obama pointed out that he’s not granting undocumented immigrants citizenship or the right to stay here permanently.

“This debate is about who we are as a country: Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where those who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to make it right with the law?” Obama said. “Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends?”

Seattleites joined Mayor Murray, Rep. Adam Smith and immigrant rights advocates at a rally outside the Federal Building Thursday, heralding Obama's executive action and demanding further steps toward immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Seattleites joined Mayor Murray, Rep. Adam Smith and immigrant rights advocates at a rally outside the Federal Building Thursday, heralding Obama’s executive action and demanding further steps toward immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Garland)

But Obama’s executive action is also a further step along on a fiery collision course with Congressional Republicans, who have questioned whether the Constitution grants the president such unilateral powers. Even before the announcement they have threatened to retaliate with including another government shutdown or even impeachment.

Boehner called it, “The wrong way to govern” and said Obama will “burn himself” if he moves forward on it.

Obama’s defenders, meanwhile, point out that not only has the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the president’s discretion over immigration matters, but presidents for decades — both Republicans and Democrats — have taken such unilateral action. Obama reiterated that position in his speech

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who spoke at a rally in downtown Seattle on Thursday, told a small crowd that Obama is doing what the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has failed to do.

“This executive action is a good step, but millions of undocumented immigrants will continue to live in fear,” Smith said later. “To truly address our broken immigration system, Congress must pass a permanent comprehensive immigration reform bill.”

At rallies across the state Thursday, immigrants and their advocates hailed the proposal as a welcome, although temporary, reprieve from the threat of deportation that separates families.

“This is a victory for immigrant communities … but it’s a limited victory,” Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said at the downtown event, which was also attended by Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Maud Daudon.

“There will be a lot of people who will still be left out and in fear of deportation,” he said. “And even for those who qualify, this is still limited, temporary. It’s not going to provide a path to citizenship.”

But it’s a “step in the right direction,” Baron said, outlining actions those who qualify for relief will need to take in the months ahead.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting suspects during a 2010 raid. More people have been deported under Obama than any previous president. (Photo from ICE)
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting suspects during a 2010 raid. More people have been deported under Obama than any previous president. (Photo from ICE)

The president’s proposal follows repeated failed efforts in Congress over the last decade to overhaul the nation’s fractured immigration system — including a broad, bipartisan measure that the U.S. Senate passed last year but that the Republican-led House failed to take up.

This summer, Obama promised immigrants and their advocates that he would use his executive power to pursue the changes he could, but postponed taking action until after the midterm elections when many Democrats faced tough challenges in their home districts.

Nonetheless, many of those Democrats were defeated in a stunning house-cleaning that saw Republicans take the Senate and several governorships across the country.

Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration enforcement, said Obama is ignoring the will of voters who rejected his policies on election day.

“He is putting his political agenda ahead of the welfare of the nation and ahead of his oath to faithfully defend the Constitution,” Mehlman said.

Further, he said, the move could have a huge impact on the nation’s labor market, by releasing millions of undocumented immigrants “to compete for any job.”

“It allows millions of people here illegally to remain here and work here and collect benefits here,” he said.

“The response to DACA was a surge of minors coming across the border,” he continued. “The response to amnesty will be more people coming across. And there’s no indication that once the president makes this order that he’ll suddenly start enforcing immigration law…”

Sharon Maeda, executive director of 21 Progress, a Seattle-based organization that works with young undocumented immigrants and their families to apply for deferred action, said she’s excited for those who will benefit from the president’s plan.

She says many of those she’s met have skills they are unable to use because of their immigration status. There have been graphic artists, social workers, chefs, teachers, entrepreneurs.

“A social security number and work permit would change that for many of them,” she said. “It would give them access to legitimate jobs where their employers are required to pay them at least the minimum wage, give them a lunch break — things some of them have never had.”

Martinez, 47, who works in the construction industry and has been in the U.S. more than half his life, said he hopes that employment authorization through Obama’s executive plan will improve the reputation of undocumented workers.

“We are not immoral people,” he said. “We are people who have always work. I came here to work, and I’ve done that and I will continue to do so.”