Ending a seemingly unbreakable deadlock, the U.S. Congress has made tremendous inroads toward passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Several weeks ago, a bipartisan group of senators popularly known as the “Gang of Eight” released their highly anticipated reform proposal. Days later, tens of thousands descended upon Capitol Hill in a “Rally for Citizenship,” demanding a legal framework for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Public support is at an all-time high, with bipartisan polls showing as many as 77 percent of Americans in favor of a path to citizenship.
Despite tremendous advancements, divisive tensions have persisted around a series of proposals to ensure that the legislation is inclusive of all immigrants. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment last week to extend existing citizenship and residency benefits to binational same-sex couples. Inspired by the proposed United American Families Act (UAFA), the measure seeks to benefit an estimated 24,700 couples by granting foreign-born same-sex partners access to legal permanent residency through green cards. Although it is a seemingly sensible measure to ensure that the comprehensive reform bill serves all immigrants, conservative opponents have said it would threaten Republican support and derail hopes for bipartisan consensus.
Opposition against UAFA stems from a moral objection to marriage equality for same-sex couples. Pundits have labeled it a “wedge issue” and prominent reform advocates such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) have said it would cost their support. Yet despite this rhetoric, the bill makes no change to existing definitions of marriage, which are decided by states and are currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court as they pertain to same-sex couples. Furthermore, UAFA boasts bipartisan support from numerous Republicans, including the bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Susan Collins of Maine and former Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona. During a recent visit to Costa Rica, President Obama joined a chorus of supporters and called the measure “the right thing to do” in guaranteeing equality for all Americans.
Last night, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney appeared on Univisión’s “Meet the Candidate” forum—President Obama was interviewed today—where the questions from Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas almost immediately turned to his stance on key immigration issues. Unfortunately, Governor Romney did not provide much additional clarity as to his stance on issues such as continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), deportation and a balanced approach to comprehensive immigration reform.
First, the question of Deferred Action. When first asked about whether he would keep the President’s temporary policy, Romney responded: “The immigration system, I think we all agree, is broken and it’s been a political football for years and years on the part of both Republicans and Democrats. It needs to be fixed.” This answer did not address whether he would continue with DACA. Further pressed to specifically provide an answer on the fate of DACA under a Romney administration, the answer was that a “permanent solution” would be his goal—again, refusing to address whether he would keep the policy.
Clearly, a permanent solution is necessary. But in the absence of Congress and the White House being able to agree to one—a reality given Washington’s bitter partisanship—voters were left still guessing whether the 1.7 million potential beneficiaries of Deferred Action would be left out in the cold under a Romney administration.
Given Mr. Romney’s vague response to his stance on the DREAM Act—saying it would “have to be worked out by the Republicans and Democrats together”—the answer is that the President’s Deferred Action policy would likely not be upheld in its current form. This is a good reason for Romney to avoid the question in front of Univisión’s Spanish-speaking audience.
Why? Deferred Action is largely modeled after the DREAM Act that failed to pass Congress in late 2010—a bill where Mr. Romney disagrees with its core provisions. DACA, similar to the most recent DREAM bill, applies to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, and who are over 15 years old and under age 31, and have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years. Potential beneficiaries must also have a high school diploma or a GED, or be currently in school. Military veterans are also eligible. The major difference is that DREAM provides a pathway to citizenship but Deferred Action beneficiaries are only granted a two-year reprieve from deportation along with work authorization.
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.”
Top stories this week are likely to include: G-20 economic summit in Los Cabos; Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro; the hemisphere reacts to Obama’s immigration policy shift; South Korea’s president and China’s premier embark on separate Latin America tours; and Humala’s approval hits a new low.
G-20 Summit Kicks Off in Mexico: The annual global economic and financial summit known as the Group of Twenty, or G-20, takes place today and tomorrow in Los Cabos, Mexico, after having been preceded by the B-20 business summit. The G-20 is comprised of the European Union members and 19 other major economies; together, they represent 90 percent of the world’s GDP, 80 percent of worldwide commerce and two-thirds of the globe’s population. The world will pay close attention to any developments from the summit, given the fragility of the eurozone and the apparent slowdown in China, which has led to a growth deceleration in Brazil and other economies dependent on Chinese manufacturing. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini posits, “President Felipe Calderón has promised a major breakthrough on the economic crisis that has the world on edge. But can the G-20 really affect the deeper structural and confidence issues facing the global economy?”
Rio+20 Hits the Ground Running: Although the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, began last week, the high-level meetings take place from Wednesday through Friday after the G-20 concludes. Nearly 115 heads of state are expected to attend this environmental summit, which is the largest UN conference in history—with nearly 50,000 in attendance. However, U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be noticeably absent. Will Rio+20 produce any tangible results? Notes Sabatini: “What was once considered the starting point of global discussions over environmental issues has unfortunately become just an anniversary. To inject this forum with the importance and urgency that is necessary to change the course of global environmental issues, the United States and other developed nations need to step up—this time for real.”
The Hemisphere Reacts to Obama Policy Shift: Friday’s surprise announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the Obama administration will stop deporting young undocumented immigrants with no criminal records and who have completed some college education or military service sent shockwaves around the U.S. and beyond. While critics of the Obama administration, such as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, derided the move as “backdoor amnesty,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) praised the Obama administration for answering “the prayers of families across the nation by implementing a long-awaited change to the current immigration policy.” However, some in Latin America lament the timing of the directive. La Tribuna in Honduras believes that the policy shift “arrived late” for many Hondurans, with La Opinión concurring that the Obama plan came late for “many dreamers.” Says Sabatini: “While appreciated, it’s sad that it’s taken this long to get to an issue that should have been easy three years ago. Has the immigration debate sunk so low and political opportunism climbed so high that this is the most important pro-immigration piece of policy reform that can be passed today—and clearly for electoral reasons?” AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak agrees: “The president’s executive action is a great moment for the 800,000 undocumented youth who grew up in the United States and will now be able to more fully contribute to our society. But why couldn’t this have been done in late 2010 when the DREAM Act was blocked in Congress? The beneficiaries of this policy could have been legally working without the fear of deportation for the last 18 months if action had been taken sooner.”
South Korean and Chinese Leaders to Visit Latin America: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will attend the G-20 and Rio+20 conferences, and then depart afterward to Chile and Colombia later this week for bilateral visits. Further, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will pay official visits to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, where he will meet with the presidents of those four countries and deliver a speech at the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) secretariat in Santiago.
Humala’s Approval Rating Hits New Low: Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s approval rating has hit its lowest mark since he took office in July 2011, according to a new poll from the Ipsos Apoyo firm published yesterday. His approval rating stands at 45 percent while his disapproval rating is 48 percent. This is likely due to his stance on pushing forward with mining projects and invoking the emergency law to quash protests in northern Peru. Can he turn the unpopular tide? Sabatini says that “President Humala has failed to articulate how his outsider campaign and alleged commitment to social inclusion is different from his predecessors. In the absence of a defined, structured party system, Peruvian presidents are hostage to the vicissitudes of popular opinion—and this can be very dangerous.”
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.
Cops and Soldiers Clash in Brazilian Police Strike
Soldiers clashed with police in the Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia, where police are protesting in favor of a 30 percent wage increase. Soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at police occupying the state’s legislature. The BBC reports that crime has soared in Salvador since the start of the protests last week, with the murder rate more than doubling. Jornal do Brasil reported on February 8 that police strikes could inspire strikes in six other states this week, including Rio de Janeiro. The protests come two weeks before the country’s carnival celebrations, leading some to accuse the police of holding the government hostage.
In Peru and Argentina, Top U.S. Envoy Promotes Educational Exchange
Mercopress reports on U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson’s travels to Peru and Argentina this week. Jacobson will introduce Obama’s "100,000 Strong in the Americas" plan to increase international study between the United States and Latin America, as well as tackle a number of economic and civil society issues with the Peruvian and Argentine leadership.
U.S. Leaves Diplomatic Posts Vacant in Latin America
An article in The Wall Street Journal explores the lag in appointing U.S. ambassadors to a number of Latin American diplomatic posts. The article observes that no other region in the world has as many U.S. ambassadorial vacancies. A meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on February 7 decided to delay the decision on any pending nominations.
A DREAM Deferred? Looking at the ARMS Act
Feet in 2 Worlds blog questions the wisdom of the Adjusted Residency for Military Service (ARMS) act, introduced by Representative David Rivera (R-FL) on January 26. The ARMS Act is a revised version of the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to youths brought to the United States illegally as children if they completed college or served time in the military. The ARMS Act removes the education component. The blog asks if this might lead some to “sign up out of desperation” rather than an honest commitment to military service, and if it is wise to “deport trained professionals or students who have benefited from the public education system funded by the taxpayers.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel named Mexican-American activist Adolfo Hernandez the first director of Chicago’s new Office of New Americans on Monday. Hernandez is a Chicago-native and a long-time leader in the immigrant community; he previously served as board president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a grassroots organization based in Chicago’s northwest side.
The Office of New Americans, launched in July with the help of the New York Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, is “dedicated to improving services and engaging Chicago’s global immigrant communities through enhanced collaboration with community organizations, educational institutions and the private sector.” Hernandez will oversee several new initiatives to promote immigrant integration. These include workshops for small business owners on how to access local, state and federal resources, programs to increase parent engagement in Chicago public schools and free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, among others.
Hernandez will also ensure the implementation of the Illinois Dream Act, which was signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn in May. Supported by Mayor Emanuel, the act created a private "DREAM Fund" to support immigrant students who want to go to college, regardless of their documentation status.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) released a press release yesterday congratulating Hernandez on his appointment. “Immigrants are the engine of our economy,” said ICIRR Deputy Director Lawrence Benito in a statement, “and we appreciate that the new Office of New Americans is particularly focused on promoting job creation and entrepreneurship.”
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.
Calderón on NorthAm Integration, Clinton on Hemispheric Cooperation
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her views on U.S. collaboration with Latin America in a new era at the 41st Annual Washington Conference on the Americas, saying: “We are interdependent, and we have to deal with the real questions that interdependence poses.” The secretary talked on a range of hemispheric issues, from the near-term goal of approving Colombian and Panamanian trade deals to academic exchange, institution building, and security pacts. Mexican President Felipe Calderón closed the conference by talking about the need to deepen North American integration, and said: “The closer we are, the more competitive we will be, and the faster we will grow.” Calderón called the current U.S. immigration system “broken” and described it as a “bottleneck for growth and prosperity.” He also called for U.S. leadership on climate change and bilateral security issues, pointing out that winning Mexico’s fight against organized crime required Washington’s collaboration to tackle arms trafficking, money laundering, and drug consumption in the United States.
Other speakers at the conference included Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, U.S. Senator John McCain, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Get complete coverage at AS/COA Online.
Obama Steps up Call for Immigration Reform
President Barack Obama gave a major speech in El Paso on May 10, calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. It was the fourth major event over the last three weeks in which Obama continued his push for reform, though he did not clarify when legislation will come or how he will win over opponents in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Read an AQ blog post by Senior Editor Jason Marczak about the renewed call for immigration reform.
A bill proposed yesterday in the New York State Senate would revive parts of federal legislation that failed to make it through the U.S. Congress last year. That legislation, known as the DREAM Act, would have provided a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Following its defeat in Congress, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a youth-led nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting equal opportunity for immigrant youth, mobilized an aggressive campaign to introduce and garner support for a state version of the bill.
While not offering a path to citizenship, the new bill, sponsored by Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins of Manhattan, would offer young undocumented immigrants certain rights and privileges currently afforded only to legal residents and citizens—including the authorization to hold certain state jobs and to apply for a driver’s license. While undocumented immigrants in New York already qualify for in-state tuition fees, the bill would enable them to apply for state financial assistance in the form of grants, loans and scholarships. It would also provide them with access to health care.
To qualify, the young person would have to have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, lived in New York for two years and be under the age of 35. He or she would also be required to have completed at least two years of a four-year degree at a state college or university, two years in the New York National Guard or nearly 1,000 hours of community service.
The proposal of the bill comes amid a recent wave of state legislative measures designed to address unauthorized immigration—some meant to crack down on and others meant to expand the rights of undocumented immigrants—after the federal government failed to do so last year. Co-sponsor Daniel L. Squadron (D-Brooklyn) says the new legislation would not circumvent the federal provision that employers cannot willingly hire undocumented immigrants, but “could potentially expand the state’s options.”
Announcement of the new legislation also follows President Obama’s recent trip to Latin America, in which he reiterated his support for comprehensive immigration reform while also underscoring the need to promote development and job growth in Mexico and Central America.
Democratic Assemblyman Guillermo Linares is slated to introduce an Assembly version of the bill shortly.
Since the DREAM Act failed to pass the Senate in December and Republicans took over the House of Representatives, many people have argued that any pro-immigrant legislation is impossible. The chances are indeed slim, but the movement that emerged to press for DREAM is far from accepting defeat. In fact, if you ask these young leaders, their struggle has only just begun.
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act would offer undocumented youth an earned path to citizenship, conditional on college attendance or military service. When the bill failed to overcome a Senate filibuster in December, DREAM students (Dreamers) were devastated. And, to make matters worse, the Republicans’ landslide victory in the mid-term elections indeed made DREAM an unlikely prospect until at least 2013.
But student leaders have responded with aplomb. And at the United We Dream (UWD) network’s national congress in Memphis in early March, they focused on how far they’ve come and the work that lies ahead.
Anyone who has ever played on a bad Little League team will recall the age-old wisdom that you learn more from defeat than from victory. While winning prompts celebration, losing demands critical reflection. The same is true in politics: any advocate worth her salt will use defeat as a learning opportunity for future efforts.
Now is just such a reflective moment for the movement for immigration reform, which, after losing the DREAM Act via a Senate filibuster, has come up empty-handed in the Obama administration’s first two years. Advocates must now ask themselves how they could have done better with regards to legislative strategy. The DREAM story suggests that this inquiry should revolve around two concerns. First, were advocates of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) too slow to shift to supporting piecemeal legislation? And, second, did these movement and congressional leaders advance the optimal piecemeal strategy by focusing exclusively on the DREAM Act?
The DREAM Act centered on a path to legalization for undocumented high school graduates whose parents brought them to this country as minors. The price for a path to citizenship would have been attending college or serving in the military. Since its introduction in 2001, DREAM has enjoyed bipartisan support, because it focuses on a highly sympathetic group of immigrants—students—who bear no responsibility for their undocumented status.
But, in the hyper-polarized 111th Congress, DREAM became extremely controversial. First, the bill failed to overcome a filibuster before the mid-term elections. Then, during the lame-duck session, despite majority public support for DREAM, the prospect of another Senate filibuster prompted DREAM advocates to shifting their focus to the House of Representatives.
Nonetheless, the Democratic leadership was unsure if DREAM could pass even the lower chamber. Eventually, Democrats modified the bill to pre-empt Republican objections—they reduced the age limit (from 34 to 29), lengthened the time period for citizenship (to a 10-year wait before being able to apply for citizenship), eliminated DREAMers’ eligibility for certain government benefits during the 10-year waiting period, and increased the fees beneficiaries would have to pay.