POLITICS
11/21/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2014

Immigration Groups Have Won The Battle; Now Comes The War

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- After years of pushing the Obama administration to issue an executive action granting protections to undocumented immigrants, advocacy groups are now gearing up for a dramatically different challenge: making sure that policy actually works.

There is a vast difference between advocating for action and implementing it. And if the jump isn't made seamlessly, reform advocates worry, it could endanger the gains they have made and complicate prospects for future, further-reaching reforms.

With that in mind, a number of groups are shifting resources and focus. House Democrats, according to a senior aide, have asked the White House to brief them on the mechanics of the executive action "so that our members can explain the steps to their constituents." The president himself, according to two sources, has encouraged lawmakers and stakeholders to help sell the new policy to potential recipients.

"For the president's reforms to be successful, people have to sign up. And people will only sign up if the reforms remain reasonably popular," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the Democratic group NDN. He attended a meeting with the president moments before Obama unveiled the executive action. "Thus, immigration advocates will now have to not only focus on signing people up but defending the president's reforms so they remain popular with the public," Rosenberg said.

Organizers working on the implementation of the president's new policy are aided in the task by having a clear template to follow. Similar work was done after the president issued his executive action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which gave deportation relief to so-called Dreamers. But that action affected only a small number of undocumented immigrants.

"This is obviously a much bigger magnitude," said Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "With the magnitude of this, the existing infrastructure is not enough. We are trying to figure out how to equip service providers out there to be as effective as they can."

Like other immigration advocacy groups, NCLR has taken stock of what worked and what didn't with DACA outreach. Martinez estimated about 50 to 60 percent of the eligible population actually applied for legal protection under that policy. One change being made now is simply to throw more resources toward informing potential applicants; Martinez said a coalition of 20 or so legal entities, Hispanic-issues organizations, religious institutions and unions are involved in that effort.

"So many people have been waiting for this for such a long time, and DACA has proven to be very beneficial to the community, that I think initially we're going to see waves of people coming to service providers across the country," said George Escobar, director of human services at Casa de Maryland. "They're going to be inundating us with their requests. I think we're going to be beyond the capacity nationally to deal with the flood."

The first task for advocates will be making sure people actually know that the new program exists and how to apply for it. The application process is likely to be complicated, and many people can't afford legal help, particularly on top of a filing fee that could be several hundred dollars. So advocacy groups plan to make legal resources available and to train other people to look over applications. They also plan to try to prevent undocumented immigrants from going to scammers who pose as lawyers -- something that's already been happening, Martinez said.

Getting this information to immigrants, however, is not as simple as handing out leaflets and running television ads. A number of immigration, Latino and labor groups have partnered to create the iAmerica.org website to disseminate information on the new deferred action program. The website is in English and Spanish for now, but eventually will also be in Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Chinese and Creole. The website will also have a tool to help applicants easily determine their eligibility for deportation relief.

Kica Matos, spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, said that network will be reaching out to people via text message, email and Facebook. Martinez said a telephone hotline will be available in different languages for people to get information or relay word of potential scams.

Another tool will be media coverage. Advocates expect that while English-language news outlets are likely to move on from the story, Spanish-language news coverage will remain steady. Reform groups hope to leverage that by touting stories of people who have applied successfully -- something that could help temper the fears that applying could lead to deportations.

"[We want] to remind them that we won this because of the immigrant rights movement and we've been able to defend DACA and we're going to defend this as well," said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, deputy managing director of United We Dream.

Meanwhile, Univision, one of the biggest Spanish-language media companies in America, announced its own coverage plans this week. Those plans include local media stations "working with community organizations and consulates to answer FAQ’s and inform their local communities."

Groups are laying groundwork to help supplement the media outreach. United We Dream will expand its Own the Dream program, which helped about 20,000 immigrants successfully apply for DACA, informed more than 90,000 people on the ground and reached 2 million more on online programs, according to Sousa-Rodriguez. The Latino advocacy group Mi Familia is holding town hall events and information sessions.

Shannon Lederer, director of immigration at the AFL-CIO, said the union federation's president, Richard Trumka, held a briefing call Thursday for affiliates to talk about outreach plans. The group already has a national citizenship program running in target cities that it hopes to expand in the coming weeks. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, said much of the outreach work the religious community plans to do will take place in the pulpit.

"The reality is many of these people are already in our churches," he said. "They are in our congregations. They are in our networks. The greatest growth in many of our churches across the country has been immigrants for a long time. It’s not like they are strangers and we don't know where they live. These are our brothers and sisters."

Even after these groups reach potential recipients of deferred action, hurdles persist. Among them is the fear that potential recipients won't step forward out of concern that the new program is temporary; that in two years' time, with a new president in office, their legal protections will be taken away but their identities will be known. Advocacy groups aren't dismissing that concern, though they argue DACA implementation has shown it's safe to come forward.

"There is always the fear that if you're undocumented and you apply for this, the government will have an official record of what your status is and where you are," Matos said. "That certainly was a fear with DACA, and thankfully it was not a fear that panned out."

A bigger problem could be the actual application process itself. Filling out the paperwork is likely to be tricky and laborious. The exact requirements of the new deferred action policy for parents has not yet been announced, but it will likely be similar to the existing DACA policy. DACA applicants need documents to prove their identity, when they arrived in the U.S., their immigration status, and that they have lived in the country continually.

Those documents aren't always easy to find, particularly for undocumented immigrants who have spent years trying to keep out of the government's sight. Advocacy groups said they are working with consulates and embassies in other countries to prepare them for an inundation of requests for proof of identity.

"It's really ironic," Escobar said. "You've based your existence on erasing your traces and erasing your tracks, and all of a sudden you've got to come up with a ton of information showing evidence that you do live here."

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