Features

Life in the shadows

"Life in the shadows" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

In June 2012, less than five months before his reelection, Obama signed an executive order granting amnesty to illegal immigrants who were unlawfully brought to the United States as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows young adults who meet certain criteria to pay $465 to apply for consideration, and if approved, they receive a renewable, two-year work permit.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 472,520 DACA applications in fiscal year 2013, including Cynthia Huerta, a 20-year-old college student who works at a Houston law firm. Despite working full time, Huerta—whose parents brought her to the United States legally at age 7 and overstayed their visas—already has 67 hours of college credit en route to an industrial psychology degree. She works Saturdays to get in her 40 hours and keep up with school.

Huerta said DACA has been hugely helpful, but it only partly removes uncertainty: Her driver’s license and work permit expire on Dec. 21, and a lapse in legal status would render her DACA ineligible—even if her application is submitted months before the deadline. USCIS will not release the renewal form until late May. “There’s people like me with no criminal background who have been waiting for over a year” for a first approval, Huerta said. “That’s what scares me about the coming renewal.”

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2012)
Krieg Barrie
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2012)

Such uncertainty is why Republicans almost universally opposed Obama’s executive action and the House last year voted to defund DACA, even though members of both parties largely agree that immigrants brought here as children should not be deported. Republicans cite a distrust of Obama as the primary reason they won’t move forward on immigration reform, but another legislative problem lurks: The Senate could take any immigration bill the GOP-controlled House approves and attach the immigration overhaul it passed last year. “We’re more than happy as Republicans to dig in and solve problems, but don’t force us into a corner to get amnesty,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who has a high Hispanic population in his district.

Pearce told me if Senate Democrats would agree to work on a piece-by-piece basis, the two parties have plenty of common ground. He recently partnered with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, to introduce the American Families United Act, which would exempt, on a case-by-case basis, immediate family members of U.S. citizens who are barred from lawful re-entry. (Per a 1996 law, six to 12 months of unlawful presence triggers a three-year bar, more than 12 months triggers a 10-year bar, and breaking either one triggers a 20-year bar.)

PEARCE'S BILL IS A LONG SHOT, but Cathy Murillo is holding out hope that it will become law. She’s raising four children (two from a prior marriage) by herself in Arnold, Mo., after her husband voluntarily returned to Mexico in 2007 to correct his visa. They thought the process would take a year at most. Instead, U.S. officials slapped him with a 10-year bar and later a 20-year bar from entering the United States Murillo says he didn’t deserve. Murillo has traveled to the border to meet her husband a handful of times, but not since 2011. “My 3-year-old has seen his father once,” she said. “Best case scenario he comes back in 2018.”

Critics say the bars have been counterproductive. Recent analysis shows eliminating them would provide a way to legal status for about one-third of the approximately 11 million people illegally in the country, who currently have no other recourse.

 Sarah Monty, an immigration attorney in Houston, called the law harsh: “Is a primary breadwinner going to wait 20 years? No, he’s going to come back in,” she said. “They thought this was going to stop illegal immigration, and all it did is line the pockets of the human smugglers and document makers.”

Monty compares the situation to Prohibition, which made criminals out of otherwise honest people—only this is being reunited with family, not having a drink. Reform advocates say lawmakers should alter the U.S. immigration system to encourage lawful entry—as it once did.

In the 1950s President Dwight Eisenhower expanded the Bracero visa program to allow seasonal workers into the country. Illegal immigration plummeted (even as border patrol agents dipped below 1,100), but under pressure from labor unions, and despite strong objections from Mexico, Congress voted to eliminate the program in 1964. Between 1965 and 2008, illegal immigrants from Latin America went from near zero to 9.6 million, accounting for more than 80 percent of the current undocumented population, according to Princeton professors Douglas Massey and Karen Pren. They wrote in 2012 that illegal immigration rose “not because there was a sudden surge in Mexican migration, but because the temporary labor program had been terminated and the number of permanent resident visas had been capped, leaving no legal way to accommodate the long-established flows.”

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