This Is What Immigration Limbo Looks Like

The legal battle over President Obama’s executive orders is in the courts and the Capitol, but its effects are felt the ground.

A group of immigrants, known as DREAMers, hold flowers as they listen to a news conference on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
March 1, 2015, 3 p.m.

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — George Escobar read aloud from a list of names, his voice rising above the chatter of a packed lobby at CASA of Maryland, the state’s largest immigration-rights organization. Several people — the ones who, until recently, the undocumented-immigrant community considered “lucky” — stood up and followed Escobar to a small conference room on the second floor of the Latino advocacy and assistance agency’s main office.

Earlier in February, these were the unambiguously “lucky” ones, the undocumented immigrants who were eligible to apply for temporary deportation relief and work permits under President Obama’s new executive orders on immigration. But now — after a federal judge in Texas froze implementation of the program — the lucky ones’ fortune is more complicated: They’re left in limbo, still hoping to qualify for a program that would change their lives but no longer sure when, or even if, it will go forward.

Escobar, CASA’s human-services director, sat down at the head of the table and launched into his weekly Tuesday morning script: an explanation of Obama’s actions on immigration, encouragement to continue to assemble the materials needed for a successful application, and an admonition against losing hope. He passed out a sheet listing the possibilities: medical and utility bills, student transcripts, W-2 forms.

“The message continues to be [to] the community, ‘Don’t subject yourself to negative thoughts,’” Escobar said in an interview. “‘Continue to collect your documents. This just gives you more time to prepare.’”

In November, Obama expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include those who entered the country before their 16th birthday by January 1, 2010; he also created a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents. In tandem, the orders affect more than 4 million people.

But there’s no guarantee the program is going to advance — as both the programs’ supporters and critics are adamant that they have the law on their side.

Inside the conference room on Tuesday, Escobar emphasized to the group in Spanish that this decision is not final. The Justice Department is appealing it to a higher court. If the court injunction is lifted, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can continue preparations to kick off the application process. (USCIS implementation activities were put on hold in light of the court’s order, an agency spokesperson wrote in an email.)

This messaging — that documents should be collected, that the White House will win — provides a sense of false hope that the courts will uphold an unconstitutional action, according to Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “There’s no way to tell what’s going to happen in this litigation,” he said. “Any lawyer, any activist, who tells you how this is going to play out is being pretty foolish.”

And Republicans say Judge Andrew Hanen of Texas made the right decision when he issued a court injunction on Obama’s executive actions, a ruling stemming from a lawsuit 26 states filed.

“From the government standpoint,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, a conservative House member from Texas, said, “we are supposed to follow the Constitution and the law, and for the president to speak a law into existence and have the secretary of Homeland Security then do a memo that overrides “¦ all the former immigration laws that former Congresses and presidents signed into order is not the way it’s done.”

Exactly where and when the legal dispute will end remains in doubt.

The Justice Department is trying to get Hanen’s ruling overturned, and they’ve also moved to block the part of then Texas judge’s order that immediately froze implementation of the programs, which could be ruled on anytime, from several days to several weeks. The appeal of the judge’s ruling could also mean several to many months of waiting, according to Marielena Hincapié, the National Immigration Law Center’s executive director. Obama met with immigration advocates Wednesday, including Hincapié, who said the president told them he wanted to move through the legal proceedings as quickly as possible.

“What we can do and what we definitely talked about with the president is that we as advocates are committed to making sure that we continue to inform the community,” Hincapié said. This means emphasizing that the 2012 DACA program isn’t affected and the president’s enforcement priorities — deporting felons, not families — are still in place. It means the continuation of workshops and guidance on collecting documents.

Marly, a 20-year-old Maryland resident, has her evidence of continuous residency all lined up. Seated in CASA’s small library, she told of how she and her family left Guatemala about six years ago for the country her parents thought could provide their three children with more opportunities.

Finding a job without legal papers is a constant challenge, Marly said, and a work permit through DACA could provide relief. That’s why, last week, Marly was ready. She’d gathered her school transcripts in preparation for February 18, the day DACA was set to expand. But a call from a CASA organizer the day before informed her an overnight development had temporarily stalled the program. She felt disappointed and angry, but she’s resilient.

“When it’s time to send documentation, I am ready,” said Marly, whose last name is being withheld to protect her status as an undocumented immigrant. “My brother and my sister are ready, and I’m sure that many other families are also ready.”

That’s exactly what advocates and Democrats want. In a press conference Wednesday, House Democrats urged potential applicants to remain hopeful while the executive actions are in a state of uncertainty.

“My message to my constituents is, Don’t be daunted,” Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota said at the press conference. “Don’t be discouraged. Don’t back down. We are with you, and we’re going to see this thing through all the way.”

In the interim, the Democratic lawmakers will continue to attend informational sessions on Obama’s executive actions — a lead they advised the undocumented-immigrant community to follow, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a leading immigration advocate in the House. Over the weekend, he is scheduled to attend events in Tampa and Orlando. More are in the works in states like Maryland, Arizona, California, and others.

“We’re asking them to put the documentations together,” Gutierrez told National Journal, “so when the program starts — boom! — we can get them in right away.”

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