Last November, President Barack Obama announced a historic executive action that could allow up to 4.4 million undocumented immigrants to gain relief from deportation and apply for employment authorization documents. This initiative was an important victory for the immigrant rights movement, which had pushed the president to act to protect immigrant families.
President Obama’s executive action would expand the President’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and create a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) to request deferred action and employment authorization for undocumented parents who have at least one U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident child. Although it fails to include more than half of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and does not provide permanent immigration status to beneficiaries, this executive action would keep millions of immigrants from being torn away from their families and allow them to more fully engage with their communities—including through lawful employment that would boost our economy by tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Since Obama’s announcement, immigrant rights groups around the country have worked hard to determine the best approach to ensure that their communities have access to high-quality information and can take advantage of this important opportunity for their families. This task has been complicated, however, by recent legal challenges.
On February 16, Judge Andrew Hanen, a Federal District Court judge in Texas, issued an injunction that halted DAPA and the expanded DACA programs on the eve of their implementation. The injunction was supported by twenty-six states, arguing that Obama overstepped his authority when he instituted this new prosecutorial discretion policy.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has argued that the president was within his authority to implement executive action around immigration, and this position has been supported by legal scholars, law enforcement officials, governors of other states, and a coalition of mayors and executives from some of America’s largest cities, among others. On May 26, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied DOJ’s request to immediately lift Judge Hanen’s injunction. The underlying case now goes to another group of judges in the Fifth Circuit, with arguments scheduled for July 10. We may be in for a protracted court battle that goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the legal case makes its way through the courts, organizations around the country continue to prepare immigrant communities for the day that these programs become active. One such organization, Make the Road New York (MRNY), which aims to build the power of Latino, working-class, and LGBTQ New Yorkers, has helped to develop an innovative model to make sure that community members receive the education they need about the programs and are prepared to apply when DAPA and expanded DACA do finally proceed.
MRNY brings together outreach, public education, community organizing and legal services, and has already reached out to thousands of New Yorkers through information sessions and legal pre-screenings. It also conducts document preparation sessions to ensure people are prepared when the application period opens, providing thousands of potentially eligible New Yorkers with accurate information about executive action to get as many as possible started on the road to relief.
Although DAPA and expanded DACA are on hold, organizers and legal staff emphasize to community members that immigrants can do a great deal during this period to get ready to eventually apply. Since late November, more than 3,000 immigrants have attended MRNY workshops in New York City and Long Island, and more than 1,750 people have been screened for potential relief. Of these, approximately 90 percent are potentially eligible for DAPA or expanded DACA. Some have also been identified as potentially eligible for other more permanent forms of immigration relief that they previously never knew existed. Participants are also taught how to protect themselves from notario fraud (or the unauthorized practice of immigration law).
By combining a trusted network of community organizers and activists with an in-house team of legal experts, MRNY is one of the few national organizations positioned to provide comprehensive services to community members around executive action while simultaneously building a base to advance the movement for immigrant rights—which will ultimately be the lynchpin of winning federal reform that provides a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.
Organizations like MRNY cannot do this alone. Cities and municipalities across the country will play a vital role in the effort to educate immigrant communities, and some are already stepping forward to take action. In New York, MRNY has collaborated closely with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and the New York City Council, in addition to allies such as the Hispanic Federation and New York Immigration Coalition, to develop a comprehensive response to executive action.
Recently, MOIA held a massive legal screening event focused on executive action, bringing together more than 200 volunteers from all over the city, supervised by trained immigration attorneys from nine different legal service providers. This team screened more than 400 immigrants for relief, and MOIA plans to continue to collaborate with legal service providers and community-based organizations to reach potentially eligible New Yorkers.
MRNY has joined MOIA and the City Council, among other partners across the city, to plan for a greatly-expanded citywide outreach, screening, and legal services effort expected to launch later this year.
In an uncertain political moment, we are confident that the law is ultimately on our side. We must therefore do everything in our power to provide our communities with the tools to apply for administrative relief in the largest possible numbers and activate them for a continuing struggle for permanent immigration relief. The well-being of immigrant families and communities around the nation depends on it.