Obama Administration to End Deportations of Relatives of U.S. Troops and Veterans

December 4, 2013

DeportationsAccording the New York Times, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer pursue deportations of “close relatives of active military troops and veterans” who are in the country illegally.  The new policy, announced in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy memo, would permit family members to apply for “parole in place,” allowing them to remain in the country by granting them legal status. The USCIS stated that the exemption is to serve as a reward to veterans for their service, and to support active-duty troops and reduce their stress, which, according to USCIS, has hurt military readiness.

The announcement comes approximately a year and a half after the President announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, allowing young people meeting certain requirements to remain in the US despite lacking legal immigration status.  In the wake of DACA and this new deportation exception, advocacy groups are now arguing that the President has the authority to halt all deportations. Advocates are now pushing the dramatic rollback in deportations since progress on an immigration reform bill has come to a standstill. However, despite taking incremental steps in ending some deportations, focused on specific groups, the Obama administration has not indicated intent to extend the policy to the overall immigrant population.

Despite its efforts, the administration seems to be caught in the middle of the immigration debate, not being able to appease immigrant advocates, who say the President is not doing enough, while conservatives criticize the policy as overstepping presidential authority.

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Pregnant Woman Shackled During Labor Receives Settlement and May Receive Visa

November 20, 2013

HandcuffedAccording to the New York Times, “[a] five-year legal battle that began when [a] woman … was arrested in July 2008 after a traffic stop in a Nashville suburb” has ended in a $490,000 settlement in favor of the woman, Ms. Juana Villegas, and a possible new legal basis for a visa created for crime victims, known as the U visa. In 2008, Ms. Villegas, who was nine months pregnant at the time, was arrested and held for six days because sheriff’s officers discovered she did not have legal immigration status.  During the six days, Ms. Villegas gave birth to a son. However, during labor and recovery, Ms. Villegas was cuffed to her hospital bed and later developed a painful breast infection because she was not permitted to have a breast pump or to have her child with in the jail to nurse.

As a result, in 2011, a federal judge, ruling in her favor, found that Davidson County officers showed “deliberate indifference” to Ms. Villegas’ medical needs.  This year, rather than continue with an appeal, officials chose to settle.  In addition to the settlement, and perhaps more importantly, in an uncommon move, the presiding judge “urged immigration authorities to give Ms. Villegas” a U visa, reserved for victims of crime, because the jail officers’ actions violated Ms. Villegas civil rights. If Ms. Villegas is granted a U visa, it would represent a significant expansion of the use of the visa.

After Government Reopens, Immigration Reform Appears To Be Focus

November 6, 2013

Capitol BuildingAs the Federal government reopens in the wake of the shutdown, President Obama and House and Senate Democrats have announced that they will focus on placing immigration reform back on the legislative agenda. The President and top Senate Democrats commented immediately following the end of the shutdown that immigration overhaul should be revisited, suggesting the issue is high on the priority list.

Despite interest in immigration reform at the highest levels and pre-shutdown momentum around reform legislation, skepticism remains around the possibility for progress while “many conservative [House] Republicans are fuming with frustration over their meager gains from the two-week shutdown.” It is unclear how much of a hindrance that frustration and resulting distrust will be to any immigration reform effort supported by the White House. However, several Republicans and Democrats have suggested that passing immigration overhaul could offer Republicans a way to regain at least some constituent support lost during the shutdown standoff.  Moreover, in addition to the continued support of House Speaker John Boehner, immigration reform is supported by an array of “traditional Republican allies,” including evangelical Christians, business, and agriculture.

In light of President Obama’s strong support of immigration overhaul, his appointment of Jeh Johnson as head of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. agency in charge of immigration services and enforcement, seemed a bit out of step.  Despite being “one of the most highly qualified and respected national security leaders,” Mr. Johnson has limited experience in the area of immigration.

California Immigration Measures Challenge Traditional Conception of Citizenship and Noncitizen Rights

October 16, 2013

Immigrant RightsCalifornia is leading the nation in the adoption of immigrant friendly laws “with measures to permit noncitizens to sit on juries and monitor polls for elections in which they cannot vote and to open the practice of law even to those here illegally.”  Under one of the new laws, immigrants will be able to “monitor polls during elections, help translate instructions and offer other assistance to voting citizens.”  Another law will allow individuals brought into the country illegally as children to practice law in California.

These reforms may be due, in large part, to the democrat’s firm hold on both the Governor’s seat and the legislature.  However, democrats are not solely responsible for the immigrant friendly policies, with reforms like granting drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants passing with the support of many republicans.

With adoption of immigration friendly policies across the states, these laws are raising questions about traditional views of citizenship, while at the same time responding to the 3.5 million Californians who are not US citizens, an estimated 2.5 million of whom are in the country illegally.  According to UCLA Law professor, Hiroshi Motomura, the reforms represent “a recognition that how people are living and working in their community might trump their formal legal status.”

Despite the broad support many of the polices have received, skepticism remains for some of the reforms, in particular allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to sit on juries.  According to some, allowing individuals from significantly different socio-cultural backgrounds to sit in judgment of US citizens may create difficulties in enforcing social norms.

Arizona Expands Restrictions on Driver’s Licenses for Immigrants

October 2, 2013

Arizona Governor BrewerIn a follow-up to Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s announcement last year that the state would deny driver’s licenses to young immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who have been granted deportation deferment under a recent Obama administration policy, Arizona has announced that it will expand its restrictions on who may receive an Arizona driver’s license.  Under the policy expansion, all immigrants “who have been granted relief from deportation” will be prohibited from obtaining a drivers license.

According to ACLU of Arizona executive director, Alessandra Soler, the policy “is motivated by politics, and Brewer’s desire to get out from under a lawsuit” that the ALCU and other groups filed last year in response to Arizona’s ban on drivers’ licenses for dreamers.  The new policy, according to the ACLU, would ban the issuance of drivers’ licenses to individuals who have been allowed to remain in the country for humanitarian reasons, including victims of trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation.

The policy expansion comes in the wake of a federal judge’s refusal to grant an injunction on the original policy and a rejection of an argument that the policy is preempted by Federal law.  However, the judge also stated that plaintiffs’ argument that the policy violates the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment would likely prevail.

New Immigration Policy Attempts to Help Keep Families Together

September 18, 2013

ObamaOn August 23, the Obama administration, in an attempt to keep families from being separated due to immigration policy, “issued a policy … telling immigration agents to try not to arrest and deport illegal immigrant parents of minor children.” The policy requires Immigration and Custom Enforcement to add parents of minor children to the list of individuals who should not be targeted for detention.  The policy requires agents to use prosecutorial discretion to avoid detaining individuals with children and to ensure children are able to visit parents that have been detained.

Despite receiving praise from immigrant rights groups, the policy has been criticized by at least one Representative as an attempt to circumvent the law.  Virginia Republican and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, denounced the policy, saying, “President Obama has once again abused his authority and unilaterally refused to enforce our current immigration laws by directing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stop removing broad categories of unlawful immigrants.” Representative Goodlatte continued, accusing the President of undermining immigration reform efforts by politicizing the issue and poisoning the debate.

The new policy seems to be inline with detention and deportation reform efforts over the last few years, including the granting of deportation deferral for Dreamers, or immigrant children brought into the county illegally, and a general focus on individuals who have committed serious crimes or who have repeatedly violated immigration laws.

Despite broad support by immigrant rights groups, as with the new policy, deferral for Dreamers received significant opposition, particularly from ICE agents tasked to enforce the policy. ICE agents attempted to block the policy, but were unsuccessful when a federal judge found that he did not have jurisdiction over the issue.

Change In Immigrant Detention Policy Could Save $1.44 Billion Annually

September 4, 2013

Detention FacilityThe National Immigration Forum released an updated report in August on the current cost of the US immigrant detention policy.  According to the report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will need nearly $2 billion, or $5.05 million per day, to fund immigration detentions for 2014. However, the report argues that if ICE were to limit its use detention of to only those who had committed violent crimes, focusing instead on electronic monitoring or similar methods for those individuals that have not been convicted of serious crime, they could save “nearly $4 million a night, or $1.44 billion annually – a 79 percent in costs.”

In 2011, the current policy resulted in the detention of nearly 500,000 individuals, which, as Ali Noorani, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, points out, is “like detaining the population of Atlanta.”  However, these funds are most often not used to maintain operations in government detention facilities.  Instead, a majority of the detention costs go to paying large private prison corporations which contract with the US government to house those detainees. According to Mr. Noorani, in the past 10 years, the top three private prison corporations have at least $45 million in campaign donations and lobbying efforts.

Despite the opportunity for significant savings, “the House of Representatives has signaled that it plans to take the opposite approach” by raising funding for immigration detention by approximately $600,000 per day, or $219 million, in 2014.

The report comes at the end a summer of tense and often polarized immigration reform discussions, with support for reform coming from both liberals and conservatives.

New York City Invests Millions in Undocumented Immigrant Education and Legal Defense

August 21, 2013

Immigrant EducationNew York City, further reinforcing its standing as one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the U.S., plans to invest $18 million to assist young immigrants without legal immigration status in qualifying for federal deferred action, a program granting temporary reprieve from deportation.  The two-year investment represents “the largest investment made by any municipality in the nation to help immigrants obtain the deferral.”

The money will be used to create 16,000 additional seats for the historically underfunded adult education programs across the city in order help potential deferral applicants earn a high school diploma or G.E.D. to satisfy the federal program requirements.

The education project is part of a pair of initiatives to provide public money to assist immigrants.  The second program, the first of its kind in the U.S., allocates funds to establish a pilot program, called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, to provide public defenders for immigrants in deportation proceedings.

The program is aimed at helping the 60% of immigrants detained in New York that are not able to secure legal representation.  Although approximately 2,800 unrepresented immigrants face deportation each year, the pilot program will cover only 135 immigrants.  However, despite the limited reach of the program, advocates remain optimistic that it will “give them a chance to test their theories and demonstrate the potential impact of a broader plan” as well as allow for the creation of a model that can be replicated by other municipalities.

Immigration Reform to Give States $2 Billion Economic Boost

August 7, 2013

Immigration Economic GrowthA report released in July by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy examined state and local tax contributions from the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.  The report found that tax contributions in 2010 from undocumented immigrants reached $10.6 billion dollars, “with contributions ranging from less than $2 million in Montana to more than $2.2 billion in California.” The report also provides a state-by-state breakdown of the projected impact of pending federal immigration reform, granting unauthorized immigrants the right to legally work in the U.S., on state tax revenue, projecting over a $2 billion dollar increase across the states.

According to the report, in addition to reforms benefiting states known for their concentrations of immigrant populations, several states not usually associated with significant immigrant populations such as West Virginia, Delaware, and Kentucky may see a jump in tax revenue from immigrant populations ranging from 30-45%.

The report, offering strong support for the federal immigration bill, comes after several other studies finding that immigration reform would prove economically beneficial, including studies finding reform “would shrink the deficit by $197 billion over the next decade” and may lead to a wage increase for U.S.-born workers.  Furthermore, according to a Pew Research Center poll, 75% of Americans believe that granting legal status to undocumented immigrants would benefit the U.S. economy.

Supreme Court DOMA Decision Affects LGBT Immigrants

July 17, 2013

DOMAThe Supreme Court’s June 26 decision in United States v. Windsor held a key provision, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. Although the decision will be celebrated by LGBT individuals and advocates across the country, the decision will have a particularly significant impact on one subset of LGBT individuals in the United States: binational same-sex couples.

Striking down the definition of marriage in DOMA will affect numerous federal laws and regulations, many of which regulate benefits to married couples.  Before the ruling, immigration benefits received by immigrants married to US citizens or lawful permanent residents were restricted to only marriages between a man and a woman—despite the sanctioning of same-sex marriages in several states.  This often resulted in the denial of residency status and citizenship to noncitizen immigrants in same-sex marriages, who were then forced to choose between living apart from their spouse or remaining in the country in violation of federal law.

As a result of Windsor, federal immigration officials are now required to recognize same-sex marriages for immigration purposes.  Now, LGBT immigrants married to US citizens will have the opportunity to remain in the country through spousal green cards and eventual US citizenship. The decision has “already helped one binational same-sex couple: an immigration judge halted the deportation of a man married to a U.S. citizen.”

The decision relieves some pressure on House and Senate Democrats in the immigration reform debate by allowing them to skirt at least part of the debate on the issue of whether to include LGBT immigrant rights in the immigration bill.  However, advocates continue to push for greater protections for LGBT immigrant interests in other areas, including amnesty and protections against solitary confinement.