President Barack Obama’s executive action announced Thursday night would give temporary legal status to roughly 4 million additional undocumented immigrants in America, and potentially thousands in Kentucky.
In addition to extending temporary legal status for approximately 2 million young immigrants who entered the country at age 16 or younger under his 2012 Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, Obama’s new executive action extended eligibility to those same category of individuals who are older than 30, as well as the parents of legal permanent residents who have lived in America for five years, have a clean criminal record, and pay back taxes. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Kentucky is estimated to have an additional 1,000 immigrants potentially eligible for DACA, in addition to 15,000 parents.
“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms?” asked Obama, who has deported 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in his two terms. “Or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together?”
However, there still are more than 6 million undocumented immigrants who remain unprotected from Obama’s executive action, including an estimated 671,000 parents of those eligible for temporary residence under DACA in 2012, as the White House explained they do not have the legal authority to do so. The executive action also is temporary, meaning the next president could choose not to renew it or overturn it, and those eligible under it do not qualify for Social Security, Medicare or Affordable Care Act tax credits.
Becca O’Neill, an immigration attorney with Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Louisville, says KRM and Catholic Charities are trying to get the word out that their organizations can provide low-cost immigration legal services to many in Louisville now eligible for temporary legal status to receive a work permit.
“It’s going to have a huge impact,” says O’Neill. “There are people who have gone to attorneys trying to get legal status and been turned away because they’re ineligible for anything. Even employers call us who have undocumented workers – tobacco farmers or in the horse industry – and they want to see if there’s anything they can do to give them work authorization. And often there’s nothing we can do. But now those people who have been turned away are going to have the potential to apply for work authorization, which is huge.”
With temporary legal status and a work permit, O’Neill says, these immigrants can be shielded from exploitation of their labor and provided with security that has eluded them in the past, such as obtaining a driver’s license.
“For a lot of undocumented people it’s just a fear of driving, because getting pulled over without a license often results in arrest, and for undocumented people it puts them in contact with ICE and initiates removal proceedings,” says O’Neill. “And it relieves a lot of stress. So many undocumented people I’ve seen here for years, it’s like they’re carrying around this stress and anxiety the entire time they’ve been here, worrying about when the other shoe is going to drop and when they’ll get caught.”
While KRM and Catholic Charities will now be able to help an expanded population they could not help before Obama’s executive action, O’Neill laments that many of those leading the immigration reform movement are left behind, particularly the families of DREAMers — young immigrants named as such because of their advocacy for the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway for citizenship for those brought to America through no fault of their own as children.
Silvia Palacios, a 22-year-old Jefferson Community and Technical College student, is one of those young people who qualified for DACA in 2012 and whose family’s future remains uncertain. While she and her brother and sister have had their temporary legal status reauthorized, her parents are not covered because none of their children are permanent legal residents. However, Palacios tells Insider Louisville she is still hopeful that because there is no longer an age limit under DACA, her parents may qualify for it as well.
“I still have so many questions about this,” Palacios says. “I think they have a pretty good chance, and I am still waiting to understand how we’ll go about starting the process … We are still kind of in limbo. We are between borders, as of right now. Standing between where we came from and our homes. So that’s where they are leaving us, once again.”
Palacios hopes her parents — who have lived undocumented in America since before she and her siblings came here — will be covered under the expanded DACA, avoiding the exploitation they have faced in the past.
“My father has been a victim several times,” says Palacios. “He’s done work and has not been paid … just the fear of deportation and threats because he’s undocumented. He just kind of took it and moved on.”
Palacios and her parents have mixed emotions about Obama’s executive order: grateful he took action but still sad that 6 million undocumented immigrants remain in limbo.
“This is only a small step in the right direction, but there are still so many things that need to be done,” says Palacios. “He did not address that there are still 6 million people who are going to be left behind. And I agree with everything about (excluding) felons and the people who have committed crimes. That is something good, but as far as everything else, we have so many mixed emotions for those who are still between the borders.”
Many congressional Republicans denounced Obama’s actions as unprecedented and lawless, saying they will work to overturn it legislatively, perhaps even initiating a budget showdown.
However, it’s worth noting that previous presidents — including Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — have ordered similar executive actions with little criticism or controversy. Following Obama’s announcement, many Republicans lamented that his action would destroy any chance of a comprehensive immigration reform bill passing through Congress, even though the House left untouched the Senate’s bill passed well over a year ago with a large, bipartisan supermajority.
Despite those criticisms, Palacios says Obama was correct to move in the right direction, and says it is time for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that gives certainty to everyone.
“To be honest, I feel like it will put more pressure on the Republicans to do something about immigration,” says Palacios. “Eventually they are going to so something that helps the 11 million undocumented people in the country. But as of right now I feel that any step, no matter how small, is something. I don’t think the Republicans were going to do anything, and if they were, it was going to be something like last time, watering down the DREAM Act.”
Palacios is still hopeful that Congress will pass legislation that would give her and others a pathway to citizenship — which Obama’s executive action did not do — and still plans on going to law school after she graduates from college and eventually starting her own law firm.
President Obama’s full speech is below: