By Irina Matiychenko, Director, Immigrant Protection Unit, New York Legal Assistance Group
I remember the joy I felt on November 20, 2014, when President Obama used his legal authority to introduce his Immigration Accountability Executive Action (Executive Action) -- a series of reasonable reforms to our nation's immigration policy that would provide temporary relief from the threat of deportation to as many as 5 million people. Executive Action was welcome news for those of us who, in the face of continuing inaction on the part of Congress, have been calling on the President to exercise his inherent executive power to overhaul our broken immigration system. A Texas judge's temporary injunction cut short that joy a few months later, but my belief in the rightness of the President's action, and the commitment NYLAG shares with so many others to fight for the interests of immigrants, has only strengthened.
Now, as the battle over the President's reforms comes to the Supreme Court, NYLAG is honored to support New York City Council Resolution (No. 928-A), spearheaded by Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, Chair of the New York City Council Committee on Immigration, which urges the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth Circuit's ruling in United States v. Texas and uphold President Obama's Executive Action.
Despite the injunction, New York City officials, agencies and advocates have been united in their support of the President's plan, and in working to ensure that immigrants get the real facts about our nation's immigration policies and to show them that their city values and supports them. Mayor de Blasio joined cities and counties across the U.S. in filing an amicus brief arguing to the Supreme Court that the President's program is in the best interests of the nation. Meanwhile, the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, led by Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, have made it a priority to provide immigrants with accurate information and legal and other services to help them prepare for the day when the President's vision becomes a reality.
The City Council's Key to the City Initiative, coordinated by the New York Immigration Coalition in collaboration with many partners, has been enormously successful in reaching immigrant populations by creating comprehensive, one-stop-shop events where they can be screened for all potential avenues for status relief. Similarly, immigration clinics and events held by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs have brought organizations together to assist New York City's immigrant communities. Thanks to the city's support, legal services agencies such as NYLAG have been able to help more immigrants than ever address a range of legal matters that stand between them and a better quality of life. This has been particularly important in recent months when inflammatory presidential campaign rhetoric has created a heightened level of fear in immigrant communities.
Building on a Good Idea
Executive Action expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy introduced in 2012 that provides temporary relief to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children, allowing them to apply for temporary work authorization and to obtain a social security number, driver's license, and credit card. Since its creation, NYLAG has helped 2,407 people apply for DACA, and the need continues, especially for those with more complicated cases. We have seen firsthand the economic and moral benefits of DACA and wholeheartedly support expanding the program.
In addition to expanding DACA to a larger cohort of young people, Executive Action also introduces Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) for the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who meet certain criteria. While not a pathway to citizenship or a green card, those who qualify for expanded DACA or DAPA will no longer live under the threat of deportation, removing a barrier for many hardworking immigrants who have been forced to work under the table, often for appallingly low wages and in substandard conditions. Most importantly, thousands of families who have lived in fear of being separated can now for the first time be assured that parents and children will not be torn apart. The plan includes a number of other welcome steps that will shift enforcement emphasis away from deporting immigrants with strong community ties and no criminal records, including eliminating a controversial Homeland Security Program that rapidly pushes immigrants into detention and deportation, strengthening policy guidance for immigration authorities, and implementing immigration court reforms.
The Justices will hear the case this spring and, we hope, issue a decision before the term ends in June. I believe that our highest court will uphold the President's authority to take action on immigration relief -- as Presidents have done time and time again over the past several decades. The timeline for the implementation, however, will present a serious challenge. Because the next Administration could reverse Executive Action, it is imperative that the programs be implemented before President Obama leaves office and that all potentially eligible immigrants apply for expanded DACA and DAPA as soon possible.
New York has the infrastructure in place to mobilize quickly and roll out a citywide campaign to conduct large-scale screening clinics to determine individual eligibility for DACA and DAPA benefits. In fact, thanks to the many events the city has sponsored, thousands of immigrants have already been screened; NYLAG alone has identified 1,950 individuals who may potentially benefit from a favorable Supreme Court decision. In the meantime, it is important that immigrants who may be eligible for relief are encouraged to collect the necessary documentation in anticipation of a successful appeal, and to be aware of and avoid fraudulent providers offering to take money to help apply for these programs that do not yet exist.
We will have limited time to act, but luckily, in New York City, we are well-positioned to make it happen.