By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb
President Obama’s long-awaited executive action on immigration has finally happened – with the anticipated political fireworks – and will benefit more than one third of the country’s undocumented persons. It is premature to offer predictions regarding how the dynamic will play out between a White House wounded by electoral losses last month and an emboldened Congressional opposition. We can, however, take stock of who the administration’s measures have and have not affected. Between 4 and 5 million people, a majority of them originally from Mexico, will be able to apply for work permits and secure protection from deportation for three years if they have been in the U.S. for five years or longer and have children who are either U.S. citizens or authorized residents.
The executive action is no modest change in policy, but it contains little good news for large numbers of undocumented persons and no good news for those his administration has already deported. For the 250,000 U.S. citizen children whose parents have been deported over the past six years, it provides no comfort; there is no provision for the parents to return to raise their kids here. Nor did the President’s measures offer more permanent relief to the roughly 280,000 Central Americans who have resided in the U.S. with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) following natural disasters in the region during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Beneficiaries of those provisions will continue to pay roughly $500 every 12-18 months to renew their status. Other populations who have been here for well over a decade as stable members of the community also remain unaffected by the reforms. No matter how long they have been here nor how good they have been – law-abiding, tax paying, churchgoing or generally nice – they will not be eligible for relief if they do not have children. The administration’s action was strictly cast as a family-focused initiative, and family, in this instance, means children with authorization to be in the U.S. Spouses do not count. An important new population of migrants was also left out of the reform: the unaccompanied children, largely from violence-torn countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, whose surge across the border received great media attention during the summer of 2014. Indeed, the president’s speech to the nation made no mention of that humanitarian crisis and made clear that those who come across now should expect to be deported.
The 68,000 children who trudged across the border during this fiscal year remain in limbo. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, over 55,000 have been placed with immediate or extended-family sponsors in the U.S while their removal cases are pending in immigration court. Metropolitan areas with long-established Central American communities have witnessed the largest influx of unaccompanied children. The Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area alone, for example, received approximately 6,500 unaccompanied minors during the past fiscal year. Once placed in sponsor care, these kids’ prospects for remaining in the U.S. – and their well-being while awaiting a court decision – are largely dependent upon local-level policies. While the Obama administration has taken limited steps in recent months to provide legal counsel for these minors, funding for direct legal representation and a range of other educational, health, and social services is increasingly coming from those state and local governments that traditionally support immigrant-friendly humanitarian programs. This support is crucial, as demonstrated by a Syracuse University study that found that 85 percent of unaccompanied children appearing in court without an attorney are ordered to leave the U.S.; with an attorney, however, a child’s odds of remaining in the U.S. increase from 15 to 73 percent. In cities such as New York, local funds are also being channeled through advocacy networks to support access to services beyond the courtroom, from mental health screenings, to vaccinations, to assistance with school enrollment. Other local communities may not follow suit, particularly in the wake of the newly announced executive action, which in the short-term will strain the already taxed resources of local governments and advocacy groups.
December 11, 2014