President Barack Obama’s plan to move forward with reforming the U.S. immigration system through executive action will not be deterred by threats from some Congressional Republicans to force a government shutdown, press secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday. “The president is determined to act where House Republicans won't, and there is strong support for that all across the country," Earnest said.
The comments from the White House come in response to remarks by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) that signaled the possibility of the GOP using the budget process to halt any executive action on the issue. "If the president wields his pen and commits that unconstitutional act to legalize millions, I think that becomes something that is nearly political nuclear," Rep. King told the Des Moines Register on Wednesday.
White House lawyers are in the final stages of building a legal case around Obama’s plan to expand administrative relief that will likely expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) launched through executive action in June 2012 to more recipients. While an announcement of the reforms were excepted by Labor Day, the president’s trip to Estonia and Wales and conflicts in the Middle East will likely delay it until mid-September.
This week’s top stories: USAID is accused of running a secret program in Cuba; Mexican energy reform passes in the lower house; U.S. Republicans pass immigration bills before recess; the value of the Argentine peso drops over debt woes; a bridge in Montería, Colombia collapses.
USAID and Cuba: In a statement this morning, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has criticized an Associated Press report that alleges that the agency secretly sent non-Cuban Latin American youth to Cuba to recruit anti-government activists on the island. USAID states that their work “is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover,” and that it was part of “democracy programming in Cuba.” The program, which the AP says was run by USAID and the Washington-based Creative Associates International, allegedly recruited a dozen young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to “identify potential social-change actors” while running civic programs in Cuba, such as an HIV prevention workshop.
Mexico’s lower house passes energy reform: Mexico’s lower house passed secondary legislation to reform the Mexican energy sector on Saturday, making small modifications to proposals submitted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican Senate. The reforms, which must now be re-approved by the Senate, are expected to bring billions of dollars of investment in the production of Mexican oil and shale gas. The reforms will allow private companies to produce oil under production-sharing and profit-sharing contracts with the Mexican government for the first time in nearly seven decades. One of the most controversial components of the legislation is a requirement that the federal government, financed by Mexican taxpayers, pay a portion of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE)’s pension liabilities.
Immigration bills: In last-minute votes on Friday before the August recess, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed two bills that would modify a 2008 anti-human-trafficking law in order to make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors from Central America, and also block the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportations for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The Republican bills have come under criticism from Democrats and U.S. immigrants’ rights groups, who say that the legislation would return children to the violent situations in their home countries that they are trying to flee. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the legislation “a low point for our country.” Those in favor of the bills say they will strengthen enforcement and reduce incentive for young immigrants to come to the United States. The legislation approved $694 million in funding for federal agencies to address the surge of migrants, far less than the $3.7 billion requested by President Barack Obama. Congress is on recess this month, and the measures are unlikely to become law due to strong opposition. President Obama said on Friday that he was “going to have to act alone” due to the lack of funding to respond to the surge of young migrants.
Argentine peso could drop 10 percent in value: After last month’s failed negotiations between Argentina and holdout creditors over Argentina’s debt, investors expect a 10 percent drop in the value of the Argentine peso over the next 90 days. Traders’ expectations for the peso hit a six-month low on August 1—at 9.15 per dollar—two days after the country missed its July 30 deadline to pay $539 million in interest to restructured bondholders. The Argentine government has argued that the country is not in default because it has continued to make deposits to its bondholders with the BNY Mellon, though the payments are being held back due to the court ruling by the U.S. district court judge Thomas Griesa, who ruled that holdout creditors must be paid first. Argentina has asked Judge Griesa to find a replacement for mediator Daniel Pollack as negotiations continue, saying that he has been biased in favor of the holdouts.
Collapse of bridge in Montería, Colombia leaves at least 27 wounded: A bridge being built to reduce traffic at Los Garzones airport in the city of Montería in northern Colombia collapsed around 9 p.m. on Sunday and left at least 27 workers wounded, while one worker remains trapped in the debris. It is unclear why the bridge collapsed, although some believe that it may have been an error in engineering in the construction’s wooden framework. Transport Minister Cecilia Álvarez will visit the zone today to make an inspection.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, announced on Monday that the U.S. will move forward with the deportation of the estimated 60,000 to 80,000 undocumented unaccompanied minors who will enter the country illegally in 2014 alone.The announcement comes just days after the White House unveiled a multi-million dollar plan to help reintegrate Central American return migrants in their home countries and increase security assistance funding.
In addition to speeding up the deportation process, the White House emphasized that these children are not guaranteed asylum. Unlike Canadian and Mexican minors, Central American children—who make up the majority of the recent surge—cannot be repatriated immediately, and are instead put in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement until they can be placed with a parent or guardian while awaiting their deportation proceedings.
In addition to foreign aid, the Obama administration’s plan announced on Friday would increase immigration enforcement on the border, open facilities designed to detain families and increase the amount of immigration judges available to handle immigration court hearings to help ease the backlog that is partly responsible for keeping unaccompanied children in cramped quarters.
In a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said that House Republicans have a “narrow window” of two or three months to push comprehensive immigration reform legislation through before midterm politics become a priority. Congressional elections will be held on November 4.
At the meeting, Obama cast immigration reform as a security issue, saying that maintaining the status quo “makes it harder for our law enforcement agencies to do their job.” The president signaled that the administration could “reboot” the controversial Secure Communities program, which shares information on immigrants gathered by local and state law enforcement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson—who assumed office last December—is in the midst of conducting a review of the administration’s immigration enforcement policies. Over the past few months, Johnson has met with stakeholders on both sides of the immigration reform debate, including the national immigrant youth organization United We Dream and the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies.
The president expressed hope that comprehensive reform legislation—like the bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support in June 2013—would make it to his desk, provided that there’s movement before the August recess. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told local chambers of commerce in San Antonio on Monday that both parties are “getting closer on the policy side in terms of how to deal” with immigration reform.
Guatemala has captured the attention of media and policymakers across the globe with historic proceedings against former leaders, discussions on drug decriminalization, its U.N. Security Council and OAS involvement, organized crime, and other hot topics. Despite progress on important fronts like security and an improved image abroad, the pressing issue of deportation from the U.S. remains unsolved and continues to worsen, increasing pressure on an already fragile economic and social fabric.
Guatemala’s bilateral relationship with the U.S. is its most important, reflected by the country’s 12 diplomatic posts there and plans to open others soon. In 2012, cash flows from the U.S. reached record levels, totaling over 10 percent of Guatemala's GDP at $4.78 billion. President Otto Pérez-Molina's government is encouraging migrant families and their recipients to invest these funds, aware that creating opportunities for Guatemalan citizens and influencing the U.S. Congress to provide legal status to the over 700,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the U.S. are crucial to the economic and social sustainability of Guatemala.
Deportations from the U.S. in 2013 have already surpassed 2012 levels, with two months remaining in the year. This further exacerbates pressures on the Guatemalan government to provide those with a “stunted American dream” access to key services, sound infrastructure and, most importantly, jobs.
With activities like the Guatemala Investment Summit, the manufacturing, tourism and construction industries are providing Guatemalans with job opportunities and the chance to integrate into the country’s economy. Although many higher-skilled and English-speaking workers are able to find jobs upon returning to Guatemala, the biggest remaining challenge is to create opportunities outside of Guatemala City.
White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod said yesterday that immigration reform legislation is coming “early” in President Obama’s second-term agenda. Axelrod’s comments followed shortly after Obama’s inauguration address in Washington DC in which he only briefly touched on immigration. Axelrod went on to say that the president could push for reform as soon as the State of the Union speech in three weeks.
The near-record turnout by Latino voters in November favoring Obama over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by a margin of 71 to 27 percent gave the president a new mandate to reform the U.S. immigration system. A number of immigrant reform groups organized events around the inauguration to make sure the issue of got the attention it deserved. For example, 120 members of advocacy group Casa de Maryland—many of whom worked on the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012—marched on the National Mall yesterday calling for sensible reform that goes beyond Deferred Action.
Legislation will likely include measures that seek to resolve the status of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.—especially for young arrivals and so-called “Dreamers”—while stepping up enforcement mechanisms like E-verify. Other components of immigration reform legislation will likely also address visas for high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs with agricultural visas a likely sticking point between the two parties. Immigration reform was expected to be the president’s first order of business in 2013, but the Newtown shooting and the consequent push for gun control legislation mean that introduction of a bill is now expected to occur in the spring.
Today is the first day that as many as 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children can file applications for deferred action, under a new policy announced by President Obama in June. Instructions for the applications were posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website Tuesday afternoon. If approved, these immigrants would be allowed to live and work openly in the United States for a two-year period that could then be extended.
USCIS, which normally reviews about 6 million applications for citizenship, residency and work visas every year, will review the applications for deferred action. It is not known how many people will apply or when. The greatest numbers of beneficiaries will be in the states of California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois.
Both advocates and critics warn of potential budget shortfalls and back-ups in processing paperwork. Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS, said that “while individual processing times may vary, individual requests will take several months to process.” No new USCIS workers have been hired to review the school records, affidavits and other documents that applicants will be required to file, and no additional funds have been allocated to cover the additional processing costs. USCIS expects costs to be covered by the application fees.
Under the program, called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 who arrived in the U.S. before turning 16 years old would be eligible for deferred action and a renewable two-year work permit if they are currently enrolled in school, graduated from high school or served in the U.S. armed forces, and have no criminal record, among other criteria. The program does not confer any permanent legal status or open a future path to citizenship. While the policy offers immigration advocates and undocumented immigrants cause for optimism, several states continue to move forward with new immigration policies that may dampen some of the euphoria around the new policy.
Advocacy groups around the country have planned celebrations, legal aid seminars and other events to mark the occasion and provide support to applicants. The office of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), a leading advocate for immigrant communities that has worked with AS/COA, was flooded over the weekend with young immigrants seeking information about the applications, as were many similar organizations in other cities. Jacqueline Esposito, director of immigration advocacy at NYIC, said, “We recognize that this particular relief is limited in nature, but we believe it’s going to build momentum to more lasting reform.”
From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Clock Ticks Down on Rio+20
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development—known as Rio+20—adopted an official text in negotiations this week, which will be debated on June 20 to 22. The 80-page document, titled “The Future We Want,” outlines the conference’s goals of sustainable development, corporate sustainability, and the importance of the private sector and free trade in achieving these goals. The summit was expected to draw 50,000 participants and the heads of state of more than 100 countries to Rio de Janeiro. However, “there are few expectations for concrete actions or pledges of new aid to developing countries,” reports the The New York Times. A piece in Mexican news site Animal Político also questions the conference’s sustainability, pointing to the huge carbon emissions involved in traveling to and hosting the conference.
G20 Wraps up in Mexico
Discussions about the ongoing eurozone crisis dominated the two-day G20 summit held in Mexico this week. Members agreed to focus on improving Europe’s economic stability in the wake of continuing turbulence in Greece and Spain, and to avoid protectionist measures until 2014. The summit also succeeded in increasing funding contributions from emerging economies to international lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for promised reforms, including greater voting power for developing countries. China offered $43 billion to the IMF, while Brazil, India, Russia, and host country Mexico each agreed to contribute $10 billion. The United States used the opportunity to invite the G20 host country as well as Canada into negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed nine-country free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific.
Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about the importance of the G20 being held in Mexico.
Learn more about the TPP in an AS/COA Online Explainer.
World Leaders to Tour Region after G20 and Rio+20
A number of world leaders will take Latin American tours after participating in the G20 in Mexico and the Rio+20 in Brazil. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will undertake a tour of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will travel to Chile for three days after the two summits, and will also become the first South Korean president to visit Colombia, where he will spend two days. Portugal’s Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is also visiting the region this week, making his first stop in Peru on Monday before continuing on to the Rio+20 in Brazil. He will spend this weekend in Colombia before returning home.
The President’s speech today from the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas, hit the right message: immigrants are vital to U.S. economic competitiveness and growth. As was reiterated today, the U.S. can no longer afford to idly sit by without passing legislation to create an immigration system that fosters entrepreneurship and addresses the plight of those in the U.S. without authorization. With flags fluttering in the background on a hot Texas day, he emphasized that “reform will make America more competitive in the global economy.”
The numbers are clear. Immigrants come to the U.S. to contribute to this country’s future and to create a better future for their families. It’s no surprise that people who give up everything to start a new future in the U.S. are also innovative businesses people. In fact, according to a 2008 study issued by the Small Business Administration, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than non-immigrants. And overall, The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute reported in 2007 that Hispanic entrepreneurs have established an estimated 2 million businesses in the United States, generating $350 billion annually. Here in New York, immigrants accounted for $229 billion in economic output, or 22.4 percent of the state’s total GDP, according to a 2007 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute.
A Democratic proposal in the Colorado state legislature failed to gain approval from the Colorado House Education Committee and was rejected in a 7-6 party-line vote this past Monday. The measure, Senate Bill 126, would have allowed undocumented students in the process of normalizing their immigration status, and other criteria, to pay the lower in-state tuition to attend state universities and colleges. The measure would have lowered the cost of education for undocumented students from $28,000 per year to just over $10,300 – slightly more than the $8,500 for Colorado residents who are eligible for additional subsidies not included as part of the proposed bill.
Republicans have opposed the bill arguing that it would encourage more unauthorized immigration into the state. As such, the decisive vote that struck down SB126 in the House was cast by Republican Representative Robert Ramírez, the only Hispanic GOP member of the House, whose father, a Mexican immigrant struggled to gain legal residency. His vote echoed his sentiments that approving the bill would send a message to “a new generation that it’s OK not to follow the laws of our country.”
The measure had been approved last week 20-15, again, in a strict party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled state Senate. Democrats have supported the bill saying that allowing more students to attend colleges and universities would be beneficial to the state’s future economy. Had it been approved, SB126 would have made Colorado the twelth state to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants joining California, Illinois, Kansas, and Texas among others.