The White House says President Obama’s new executive action on immigration cleared nearly 5 million illegal immigrants from any danger of deportation, but that still leaves more than half the population currently in the U.S. illegally in at least some fear of being kicked out.
Amid the congratulations and promises to sign up as many illegal immigrants as possible, advocacy groups lamented those left behind: gay immigrants, other adults without children, those who arrived within the last five years, those whose children were born outside the U.S. and those with criminal records, which leaves them ineligible.
“While we are overjoyed for the families that this announcement will support and offer them some relief, our hearts also lay heavy with the many people we love in our community who may not qualify,” Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said in the hours after Mr. Obama’s Thursday night speech announcing his plans. “When we declare ‘Not One More Deportation,’ we mean just that.”
Mr. Obama drew a number of lines, slicing and dicing the illegal immigrant community. To qualify for the new deferred action program, someone has to have been in the U.S. for at least five years and have either a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident child.
Mr. Obama also expanded his previous deferred action for childhood arrivals, removing the age limit so any illegal immigrant brought to the country before 16 can qualify.
The White House said it believes nearly 5 million of the currently estimated 12 million illegal immigrants will be eligible, though a spokeswoman didn’t respond to a message seeking more information on that calculation.
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The age and child restrictions are hotly debated.
Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the line the president drew at five years was “entirely arbitrary” and not based on any compelling difference between an immigrant who’s been in the country six years versus four years.
Meanwhile, judging someone’s length of residence in the U.S. and their ties to the community is complex.
“What’s the moral difference? The president used a lot of moral rhetoric, but it’s a very open question — someone who’s been here six years and has a child versus someone who’s been here nine and doesn’t,” Mr. Camarota said. “If length in the U.S. gives you a claim to be exempt from the law, doesn’t the person who’s been here nine years have a claim?”
Mr. Camarota, whose group wants to see an immigration crackdown, said many of the details of the president’s program remain to be seen, such as which criminal databases will be checked to see who gets weeded out of eligibility and what sorts of interview requirements or document checks will imposed.
Gay rights groups argued that tying the policy to children is discriminatory because gay couples tend not to have children. Advocates also said gays, and particularly transgender women, are more likely to have criminal convictions in their past, making them unfairly ineligible.
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Meanwhile, Ralph Isenberg, who runs the Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment in Dallas, said the blanket approach to criminal convictions will end up splitting many families. He is working several cases of immigrants who he said have criminal convictions decades in the past that would, nonetheless, render them ineligible for the president’s new policy.
Mr. Isenberg, whose group takes some of the toughest cases, said 75 percent of the felons he sees didn’t have a lawyer in court, weren’t read their rights or informed of the consequences of their pleadings in a language they could understand, and ended up agreeing to felonies that are coming back to haunt them now.
He said, in some ways, it’s worse to leave those immigrants in danger of deportation because they’ve done their time and often have become valuable members of their communities with families here.
“You’re threatening that entire family at the later stages of its family development with extreme family separation for something that has taken place scores of years ago, and the person [is] not a threat to the security of the United States,” Mr. Isenberg said.
He said people like that will only be driven further into the shadows by Mr. Obama’s new program.
Advocacy groups for “dreamers,” illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents, were disappointed that Mr. Obama didn’t grant an amnesty from deportation to their parents unless those parents had another claim such as a child born in the U.S.
In a lengthy legal opinion released last week, the Justice Department said it could find legal grounds for the president to grant amnesty from deportation to the parents of children with some permanent legal status here but not to parents of dreamers.
Lawyers said the difference is that, under existing U.S. law, the children who are citizens or green card holders could eventually petition to have their parents gain legal status here, meaning halting their deportations until such time. But the dreamers have no such chance under existing law, so they are different.
“Family unity is, as we have discussed, a significant humanitarian concern that underlies many provisions of the [immigration law]. But a concern with furthering family unity alone would not justify the proposed program, because in the absence of any family member with lawful status in the United States, it would not explain why that concern should be satisfied by permitting family members to remain in the United States,” the Justice Department said.
In Las Vegas on Friday Mr. Obama was heckled during a speech laying out details of his plans for not including the parents of dreamers.
“We’re still going to have to do more work,” Mr. Obama told the heckler, referring to the White House’s hope that Congress will still pass a broad legalization bill.
In addition to the amnesty, Mr. Obama also has rewritten deportation priorities so that other illegal immigrants who don’t qualify for his new program but don’t have criminal records or aren’t recent border crossers are still unlikely to be sent home.
Still, for now, Mr. Isenberg said he would caution the immigrants he helps against stepping forward to sign up for the new policy. His group, which takes some of the toughest cases, goes through the existing immigration law, which already has ways for immigrants to cancel their deportations and gain legal status.
He said the president’s new program, which only lasts for three years, is “too political.”
“Do not sign up. There are other forms of relief available,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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