President Obama took executive action Thursday to temporarily shield up to 5 million undocumented workers and children from deportation, a measure that could affect a significant portion of Santa Barbara County residents.
While there is no way to accurately count undocumented people, the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that the densest undocumented populations, roughly 9 percent of the state’s overall population, reside in Los Angeles County and the Central Coast. A 2007 Grand Jury report estimated Santa Barbara County’s undocumented population at anywhere between 29,000 and 75,000. The advocacy group CAUSE puts its current estimate at 39,000. And according to CAUSE organizer, Hazel Davalos, over half of them will benefit from the president’s actions.
Those actions would expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows those brought to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits and two-year deportation deferrals. Under the new regulations, the deferral period would expand to three years, and the cutoff date for arrivals would be January 1, 2010, as opposed to June 15, 2007. There will also no longer be an upper age limit of 31.
The president’s plan also creates a new deferral program for the undocumented parents of citizens or permanent U.S. residents, likewise for three years at a time, including work authorization. It does not include the parents of DACA-eligible children.
Lastly, the president’s actions scrap the Secure Communities program which allows federal agents to request local law enforcement to hold inmates past their jail terms so they can be transferred to federal custody. According to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, 606 inmates were released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2013, and 151 in 2014 (as of November 18). Obama said his new policy would focus on “felons, not families,” limiting ICE’s authority to request inmate records.
Santa Barbara immigration attorney Tanya De Vos – with the firm Kingston, Martinez & Hogan – explained that U.S. Immigration Services will begin accepting petitions for newly eligible recipients of deferred action on or around May 20 (180 days after the announcement). Those hoping to apply, she said, would need to gather documents to verify they’ve had continuous residence since January 1, 2010. She warned about “notario fraud” in which scammers take payment to guide applicants through the petition process. Hopeful deferrees should go to a trusted organization or lawyer, she said.
The president did not offer a new pathway to citizenship. Although many immigrant rights advocates applauded Obama’s actions, they are still holding out hope for Congressional action, as is 24th District Congressmember Lois Capps. Following are several local reactions to the president’s announcement, including hers.
“It has been more than 500 days since the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package,” Capps said in a statement, “and while similar legislation introduced in the House has over 200 bipartisan cosponsors, we have not had a single opportunity to debate or vote on it on the House floor. While this executive action is an important step forward, what we really need is a long-term solution that includes enhanced border security measures, an earned path to citizenship, a reformed and improved visa system, an expedited path to citizenship for DREAMERS and ag workers, and a new employer verification system. These elements of comprehensive reform would benefit not only Central Coast families but our local economy, as well.”
Greg Gandrud, Central Coast Republican Committee vice chairman, said that the local party apparatus does not take positions on national issues, but he averred that reforming immigration is the purview of Congress. “What we need is comprehensive immigration reform, and it needs to be done with the Congress,” he said, “because the Congress makes the laws … and the public wants the Congress to take the lead on important issues facing the country.”
Gandrud questioned the legality of Obama’s “political ploy” and suggested that it was a result of a failure to seriously work on a bill. He called for a policy that acknowledges all of the various categories of immigrant and that “maintains American identity, American culture.”
Unlike Obama’s political opponents, Maritza Mejia-Wilson, a board member for Adsum Education Foundation, which offers scholarships to undocumented college students, said the president could have gone further. “I myself was affected by the 1986 Reagan amnesty policies … so it was the way my parents were able to stay here legally and become flourishing members of the community,” she said. Still, “This is such a positive first step,” she said, “and an affirmation that our immigrant community is a valuable part of our economic and social structure. Every day, we all benefit from the labor and contributions that immigrants provide — we need reform to give these families the right to live out of the shadows and truly flourish.”
William Robinson, a professor of sociology at UCSB who studies immigration, agreed with Gandrud that the president should have focused more attention on immigration earlier, but he pointed out that Congress bears blame as well. He also said that left out of the discussion is U.S. policy regarding trade, intervention, and the drug war that has led to much of the migration from Latin America. The militarization of Mexico, he said, has led to large populations fleeing its states, along with economic refugees.
Robinson added, “The U.S. economy and the global economy cannot function without immigrant labor. … So you really can’t separate the ethical and humanitarian side from the economic side. The U.S. economy would grind to a halt without low-wage labor.”
Protecting U.S. jobs, however, is exactly the reason that Joe Guzzardi, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization, denounced Obama’s announcement. Those who came here illegally, he said, should not be rewarded, nor should they be competing with the most vulnerable for employment. “It’s against the law to employ illegal immigrants. If they are working, most of the jobs they hold are relatively low-paying, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say we are going to legalize them because they are paying taxes. It is possible the taxes won’t even cover expenses of processing all the applications. It’s possible people in underground economy will prefer to stay.”
A statement issued by California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. suggested that immigrants, however, are the most vulnerable population. “Many workers, who have been subjected to wage theft, forced labor, and extortion, will now be able to seek justice, pay their taxes, and continue their contribution to the community and economy without fear of deportation.”
Hazel Davalos, Santa Maria organizer for CAUSE, added that the vast majority of people eligible for the Deferred Action program had applied. She mentioned that for an undocumented family member of hers who is eligible under the new program, “nothing else in the world matters” besides gaining the legal protection that will allow him to stay with his kids. According to Davalos, 1,000 families a day are split up due to deportations from the U.S.(Daily average deportations top out over 1,100 since the start of Obama’s presidency.)
The one thing everybody agrees on is that Congress must eventually take action. As Mejia-Wilson of Adsum put it, continual deferments with no path to citizenship will lead to a “permanent second class.”