Who Will Lose Under Obama’s Executive Action?

By Julianne Hing Nov 21, 2014

Under President Obama’s historic executive action announced Thursday, Maru Mora Villalpando, a Washington State-based undocumented immigrant activist with the #Not1More campaign, could win a three-year reprieve from the threat of deportation. But Villalpando, who talked to Colorlines while attending a gathering of other undocumented and immigrant rights activists Thursday night, said "As Obama was speaking, we kept bringing up names of people we know who will not qualify."

They include Ramon Mendoza, a father and undocumented immigrant who led a 56-day hunger strike inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., this spring. He has a DUI on his record, Villalpando said, which under the terms set out by the White House, will make him ineligible for protection from deportation. Cipriano Rios, who also went on a hunger strike while in detention, is a father, but of DACA kids–undocumented youth who were given short-term work permits and deportation relief by Obama two years ago. Rios has no U.S. citizen children so he will not qualify. And Miguel Armenta, Villalpando said, has "been detained six months, he is gay, HIV positive, and he doesn’t have children. He won’t benefit from deferred action."

"I can go on and on with names," Villalpando said. As large and as historic as Obama’s second executive action is, with the potential to offer nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants short-term work permits and a shield from deportation, it’s also limited in scope. The terms are stringent: It will apply only to those who have been in the U.S. for five years or more; those who came to the country as young teens; and parents of U.S. citizen children and green-card holders. People with various criminal violations on their records will be barred from relief. 

Immediately after the announcement, organizers and advocates tallied up who won’t qualify for relief, identified broad classes of people who will continue to be criminalized under the updated enforcement regime–and named a people’s win. Those who will lose out include:

Parents of DACA Youth + Seasonal Workers + LGBT Immigrants + Domestic Violence Victims

Excluding the parents of DACA youth "is a huge example of family separation," said Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Not to include parents [of DACA recipients] in this pool is actually kind of mean. You will have families who, on one hand, have children who are DACA recipients and have some reprieve, but on the other hand, their parents won’t."

The rub here is that in the years following Obama’s first deferred action to benefit undocumented youth, it was their parents who stood at the forefront of national organizing. They did so even as the Obama administration steadily racked up 2 million deportations. "After all the work they put in," said Families for Freedom executive director Abraham Paulos, "it is unjust."

Seasonal agricultural workers and others who work so-called "low-skilled" jobs who don’t have ties to U.S. citizen children will also be excluded, noted Sandra Sanchez, director of the Iowa Immigrant Voice campaign for the American Friends Service Committee. And many women who’ve escaped violent spouses aren’t eligible for visas covered by the Violence Against Women Act. "They are going to be left behind," Sanchez said.

Black Immigrants + People With Felonies

When Obama announced that the U.S. would put a stronger emphasis on deporting "felons, not families … Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids," activists who advocate for black and criminalized immigrants raised serious concerns about that rhetoric and the policy it’ll inform.

"People with felonies have families too," said Paulos, whose organization Families for Freedom advocates for families who’ve been separated by criminal deportation."That’s a false binary [Obama] is setting up," said Tia Oso, the Arizona organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Oso pointed out that because blacks in the U.S. are already targeted by the War on Drugs and racial and ethnic profiling by police, partnerships between law enforcement and immigration authorities mean that black immigrants are in detention and criminal deportation proceedingsat a rate five times their actual presence in the U.S. undocumented community.

Paulos pointed out the irony of what he calls "explicitly anti-black policy":"President Obama–the son of an African from Kenya, who is part of a mixed-status family [that had] an undocumented aunty and [has] an uncle with a conviction, says, ‘If you’re a criminal — you’ll be deported.’"

LGBT Youth + People Convicted of Low-Level Crimes

Research shows that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate. So cutting off young LGBT immigrants with records of "low-level survival crimes," such as prostitution and others connected to homelessness, will disproportionately affect LGBT immigrants, especially transgender immigrants, said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. "Basing relief on parental relationships," and limiting benefits to those who haven’t landed in the criminal justice system will exclude most of the estimated 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Tobin said 

What’s more, when Obama describes "felons," he leaves out pertinent details, advocates say. The U.S. has designated "illegal entry"–entering the country without papers or authorization–a misdemeanor but made "illegal re-entry"–crossing back in the U.S. after a prior deportation–a federal felony offense. In the last decade, prosecutions for illegal re-entry have skyrocketed some 300 percent, and, as prosecutions have increased, the proportion of those who have no or only a minor criminal record has also ballooned. It turns out that those who risk criminal prosecution, incarceration and deportation are usually people who crossed back into the U.S. to reunite with children and loved ones. 

Border Communities

On Thursday night Obama touted his record of beefing up the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border without noting that many Border Patrol agents who have abused migrants and killed those who live along the border aren’t held accountable for their actions. "To say we’re going to double up our efforts on enforcement is really insensitive to what the impact has been," said National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’ Tactaquin.

Obama’s ongoing emphasis on border enforcement and enforcement across the U.S. also ignores the evidence that "what has affected the level of migration has been things like the improved economy in Mexico or increased violence in Central America," Tactaquin adds. "It’s not had to do with levels of border enforcement."

The People’s Win

For immigrant rights activists who have fought against the enforcement program Secure Communities, its elimination is a victory. But, #Not1More’s Villalpando and others raised concerns that the program which will take its place, "Priority Enforcement Program," (PDF) is just the same deportation dragnet by another name.

Still, the executive action itself, "is the undocumented people’s victory," said Villalpando. "The reason he did it is because of all the pressure undocumented communities built up to this point, so we must thank the people who went on hunger strike and even the people who got deported."

"We have at least 5 million reasons to celebrate," said AFSC’s Sanchez. "But we have just as many–another 5 or 6 million reasons to keep working." To Iowa Immigrant Voice’s Sanchez, the real win was that the president "finally stood up to respond to the people’s will."