In an address to the nation Thursday evening, President Obama confirmed that he would take executive action to push stalled immigration reform policy forward. He plans to issue an order Friday that will prioritize deportation of undocumented felons while establishing a program by which millions of other undocumented immigrants can apply for temporary residency.
Congressional Republicans, coming off sweeping midterm election wins, voiced increasingly heated opposition to the move this week as it became clear the president was determined to take action. They accused him of unconstitutional overreaching and said that an executive order on immigration now would poison negotiations on other important issues in the years to come.
But in announcing his plan, Obama said he was forced to act alone because members of Congress refused to act together. He described how leadership in the Republican-controlled House had refused to take up a compromise reform bill passed more than a year and half ago in the U.S. Senate, even though the bill would have passed easily in the House and Obama would happily have signed it into law.
“I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law,” Obama said. “But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as President the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican Presidents before me that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”
“Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it,” he said. “It’s been this way for decades. And for decades, we haven’t done much about it.” (Read the entire speech here.)
Colorado 5th District Congressman Doug Lamborn said he was preparing to work to block the president’s plan by defunding it. He said the executive order would defy the “will of the people” by granting “amnesty” to millions of lawbreakers.
“I am on the record calling for the House Appropriations Committee to include language, in all relevant appropriations legislation for the next fiscal year, prohibiting the use of funds to implement the president’s new amnesty policies.”
Colorado Democrats lauded Obama for acting boldly.
“This commonsense and badly needed step will ensure the federal government focuses on deporting criminals and people who pose a safety threat to our communities or our national security — not families seeking a better life,” said U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a longtime advocate of comprehensive immigration reform who lost election this month to Republican Cory Gardner.
2nd District Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has long championed immigration reform and has demonstrated his frustration with House leadership in impassioned speeches in his district and on the chamber floor.
“I look forward to the President’s executive action being implemented and hope that the millions of people living in the shadows, who in many cases remember no other home, can rest a little easier knowing that we will now be going after real criminals, not people simply trying to raise a family and make an honest living,” Polis said in a release Thursday. “While this is an important step forward, I will continue working tirelessly to bring up comprehensive immigration reform in the House that will secure our border, strengthen our economy, and keep families together.”
Obama will formally announce the program Friday at a school in Las Vegas.
Eligible immigrants will have to have lived in the country at least 5 years and have children that are either citizens or legal residents. They will have to pass criminal and national security background checks and pay full taxes. They will be able to stay in the country for three years at a time and will likely obtain a work permit for those years. The program does not bestow citizenship.
In Colorado, roughly 60,000 to 90,000 people will be eligible for the new program. That estimate is necessarily rough, however. It’s hard to know accurately how many undocumented immigrants live in the country or in individual states and even more difficult to know the particulars of their immigration status. National estimates put the number of undocumented residents at 11 million. The White House has suggested that roughly half, or 5 million, of those residents may be eligible for the program. Extrapolating on that math, there are roughly 180,000 undocumented residents in Colorado and half of that number is 60,000 to 90,000.
It will take 3 months to 6 months to create the application process, according to Hans Meyer, head of The Meyer Law Office, a top immigration firm in Denver. Once people can begin applying to the program, he said, it will take up to 6 months to receive acceptance or denial.
The Obama administration may mount an education campaign explaining the requirements and how to apply to be accepted by the program, according to immigration experts consulted by The Colorado Independent. Law firms like Meyer’s and nonprofit organizations will hold community forums and churches will hold informational meetings.
Applicants to the program will need lawyers, for at least two general reasons.
First, the eligibility requirements are likely to be fairly rigorous and, if applicants have been in the country ten or twenty years looking forward to this opportunity, it will be worth paying a lawyer to make certain their application is done properly. More than a few applicants will be denied entry into the program based merely on incomplete or shoddily completed paperwork.
Colorado Springs immigration attorney Eric Pavri said much may depend on the quality of paper trail applicants submit.
“Most likely, whatever new process is provided, you’ll have to prove that you’ve resided continuously in the United States,” he said. “Save every scrap of paper with your name, a date and a U.S. address.”
Lawyers will be able to tell applicants whether or not they’re genuinely eligible for the program. In the shadow world in which undocumented immigrants live, there is reason to fear submitting paperwork that demonstrates both that you are residing illegally in the country and that you are ineligible to enter the new deferment program.
Pavri emphasized that applicants should proceed with caution.
“I very highly recommend that they schedule a consultation with an attorney to find out if they qualify before applying for anything. There’s gong to be a lot well intentioned but inaccurate information out there,” said Pavri. “Many times a person might think they qualify [for an immigration program] but there could be something that happened 15 years ago which disqualifies them and could even get them deported… This is not a blanket forgiveness of anything anyone has ever done in their past and not everyone will qualify.”
Second, successful applicants will be awarded only a provisional waiver against deportation and temporary legal status for employment. The executive order doesn’t change the law; Congress will have to do that. So that means variables will shift, as will applicant status. Basically: Things could get complicated.
“We have no idea how this will end up,” said Meyers. He said the next president could revoke the order, end the program, and turn the list of applicants into a de facto detailed list of people to be targeted for deportation. “It’s a risk people will run. A lawyer can help determine whether an applicant has other factors in their history that would prevent deportation and work as a backup plan in the case politics and the program change.”
On that score, Pavri said applicants should look out for scam artists and incompetents.
“There are people all over Colorado, particularly in the Spanish-speaking community, who are not attorneys and illegally practice law without a license, commonly referred to as ‘notarios,'” he said. I’ve seen way too many examples of people coming to me in the middle of a deportation case because they worked with an unlicensed person who didn’t know what they were doing.”
“This is one of those ‘ounce of prevention’ questions…. Applicants will want to do this right to avoid problems down the road.”
On the ground and on the job
Thursday’s announcement comes as a major milestone for the Service Employees International Union, which has made immigration reform a top priority since 2000, when members joined nearly 20,000 people marching for immigrants’ rights in Los Angeles. Roughly a third of the union’s nearly 10,000 members in Colorado are immigrants.
Pedro Carrillo, a janitor at a downtown Denver office building and executive board member of SEIU Local 105, has lived in the U.S. for 15 years and is still “waiting for [his] documents.”
“We have a lot of families who are undocumented and this is a big, big victory. We’re still fighting for more reform because a lot of people don’t qualify. But we won a big battle with this announcement tonight. This is what we’ve been working for — the right to stay here and the right to have no fear no more to be deported.”
Others in organized labor don’t greet the reforms so eagerly.
“We’re not trying to sound like protectionists or anything like that. But our top priority is making sure that our guys and girls — Americans — go to work first,” said Tom Tuttle, business agent for Denver Pipefitters Local 208.
Right now, Tuttle said there’s enough work to keep most of the union’s 4,200 members in Colorado employed. “That wasn’t the case two years ago and the concern, of course, is that some of these workers will work for less wages, under unsafe working conditions and things of that nature because they’re afraid that they’ll be shipped off to their own country.
“That’s why we need Americans in there who aren’t afraid to speak out.”
Tuttle said about 70 percent of piping workers in Colorado are non-union. Of those he estimates that 10 to 15 percent are undocumented immigrants.
The United Mine Workers of America has voiced support for immigration reform even though it doesn’t affect many of its members. In 2005, about a hundred mine workers in Utah were fired illegally while trying to organize a union local. They sued and won. But only four were citizens or documented immigrants, so the remaining 90-something plaintiffs didn’t qualify for back wages or damages.
“The whole worker intimidation factor in this country is corporate driven and we need to end it” said Bob Butero, Region 4 director of the UMWU and a third-generation Colorado miner. “What’s good for janitors, for people who clean motel rooms and for all workers is good for us all.”
Ray Ornelas, business agent for Plumbers Local Union 3 in Aurora supports reform as a “good thing that reflects the values of this country.” Still, even with Obama’s announcement Thursday, he expects non-union contractors in Colorado to continue what he see as a “pattern of using immigrants, paying them less and exploiting them.”