The undocumented community received a devastating blow when the Supreme Court deadlocked on United States v. Texas, the lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration. The Court’s decision leaves 3.6 million undocumented parents without the ability to work legally in the United States and with no relief from deportation.
Immigrant rights organizations say forcing such a large segment of the undocumented population to live in fear is “unacceptable,” and they are calling for a moratorium on deportations.
“Honestly, we were waiting on the Supreme Court to give us something, anything in the form of relief, and it didn’t happen,” said Tania Unzueta, policy and legal director at #Not1More, a campaign to stop anti-immigrant laws. “This is why we’re calling for the moratorium. It feels like this is the minimum we can ask for. People would be much happier with rights and citizenship and being able to do things like legally work in this country, but that’s not on the table right now. Given the pain and the suffering immigrants have been facing with family separation—the minimum the president can do is stop deportations.”
Stopping deportations, which have separated thousands of families, is within President Obama’s power, advocates say. As Unzueta wrote recently at the #Not1More site, the Supreme Court’s inaction in United States v. Texas “did not result in a challenge to the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration enforcement issues or the President’s executive power to expand, reduce, or shut down the immigration enforcement programs that it has invested in.” And as Peter L. Markowitz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, wrote in the New York Times, the president does have the “pardon power,” which includes “the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest.” Unlike deferred action, amnesty would not provide work permits, but there would be no complicated application process and it would be a form of immediate relief for millions of undocumented immigrants. However, given the president’s immigration track record, it’s unclear if President Obama is even considering amnesty.
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Deportations: An Urgent Crisis
The president’s executive action would have expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, enabling eligible undocumented immigrants to receive three-year work permits, and created Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). DAPA would have provided a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation for two years to undocumented parents with children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and also meet certain requirements.
After the Supreme Court announced its split decision, President Obama essentially washed his hands of the undocumented community for the remainder of his presidency, while also leaving behind a “deportation machine” for the next president of the United States, Unzueta told Rewire.
In remarks after the Supreme Court ruling, President Obama said that in November when the next president is elected, he believes the country will get an immigration policy that reflects “the goodness of the American people” and that he has “pushed to the limits” of his executive authority. “We now have to have Congress act,” the president said, while also assuring Americans that the enforcement policies enacted by his administration will remain in place.
The president is referring to policies like the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), announced November 20, 2014, the same day he announced the expansion of deferred action. PEP replaced Security Communities, an immigration enforcement and deportation program, though advocates argue that PEP is simply a continuation of Secure Communities. Both programs include local law enforcement working with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants.
“Since that announcement of both DAPA and PEP, there are members of our community who have experienced no relief. Now, because of the [Supreme Court] ruling, all that’s come is an increase in the ability to deport people. To me, that proves that you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket, and Obama can’t rely on trying to expand deferred action as the only response to immigrant communities. There’s so much more that he can do,” Unzueta told Rewire.
In a post for #Not1More, the policy and legal director outlined all of the avenues President Obama could take in light of the Supreme Court ruling, including stopping the home raids that have been taking place since January, reviewing his enforcement priorities such as targeting those who recently arrived in the United States, and ending “all programs that entangle local law enforcement and immigration enforcement.” Unzueta also wrote that the president could stop defending “the erosion of the few rights that immigrants have in detention centers,” referring to Jennings v. Rodriguez, a case the Supreme Court announced it would take four days before it issued its decision on DAPA. In Jennings, the Court will debate how long undocumented immigrants detained for immigration violations can be held in detention. “The case had already been decided in the 9th Circuit Court, indicating that immigrants had a right to a regular review of their case via a bond hearing,” Unzueta wrote. “The Obama administration is pushing against this decision asking the Supreme Court to overturn it, arguing effectively for fewer rights for immigrants who are detained.”
The most pressing concern, however, is deportations, which is why #Not1More and other groups, including ICE Out of Austin and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA), are calling for a moratorium on them.
On June 27, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights blocked the ICE Atlanta field office and undocumented members of CIRA blocked traffic at the Hartford, Connecticut, immigration office demanding a moratorium on deportations. According to CIRA member Stefan Keller, the Hartford action resulted in the arrest of nine protesters, some of whom were undocumented. But because Hartford is a sanctuary city, which is a region that does not work with ICE for the detainment and deportation of undocumented community members, undocumented protesters were not at risk of deportation.
Alejandro Caceres, an organizer with ICE Out of Austin, a campaign to end Austin law enforcement’s partnership with the federal immigration agency, told Rewire the Supreme Court ruling has left many in Austin’s undocumented community feeling sad and frustrated, but that he’s now more committed than ever to focus his efforts locally.
“I think our organizing mentality is that we can’t do anything about the Supreme Court, but we do have the power to work to end deportations here locally,” Caceres said. “Our campaign has a four-resolution plan, and it ends with a city ID.” Community ID programs for undocumented immigrants have been adopted in various cities nationwide, including some in North Carolina, where this initiative is currently under attack. Under these programs, the city issues identification cards, which can make undocumented communities safer.
“That’s something we’re very recommitted to in the light of the Supreme Court ruling. It’s not a solution to the larger problem, but it’s a solution we can focus our energy on. It’s not citizenship. It’s not work authorization. But it’s something, and it’s one more barrier to stop folks from being deported.”
Like Unzueta, Caceres believes there is more Obama can do before he leaves office; there is more he must do, the organizer said, because without DAPA or the DACA expansion, millions of people are at risk of deportation. This is why ICE Out of Austin signed on to call for a moratorium on deportations.
“Saying, ‘DAPA didn’t pass, there’s nothing I can do,’ just isn’t true, and it’s not holding yourself accountable to the immigrant community. We know he [President Obama] can do more, and that’s why we want to put a stop to the deportations. Those who have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform understand people are being needlessly deported, and if they understand that, they have to agree that we must put a stop to deportations as soon as possible. If folks continue to be deported, that is the most urgent crisis we have and that is the issue we will continue to fight,” Caceres said.
Demanding a stop to deportations is a way to push President Obama to do more, according to advocates. Every immigration win that has come from the Obama administration began with pressure from undocumented organizers and activists, Keller said, and the call for a moratorium on deportations is no different.
“The president said it’s up to us, it’s up to Congress, it’s out of his hands. But if Congress isn’t going to help create a just immigration system, we need to put a halt on deportations until this broken system is fixed,” Keller told Rewire. “There is no justice in separating families. This is punishing people because no one is capable of reform or carrying out any other plan of action.”
Providing Tangible Support
President Obama is commonly referred to as the “deporter-in-chief” by immigrant rights activists. It is such a commonly used phrase, in fact, that in January when asking Hillary Clinton about her immigration policies, journalist Jorge Rivas asked Clinton if she would be the next deporter-in-chief. According to a Fusion report, President Obama has deported more immigrants than any president in history, more than 2.5 million since 2009. And as the Nation reported, under his administration the budget for immigration enforcement increased by 300 percent.
Chances are, Caceres told Rewire, that these deportations will continue no matter who is president.
“It was Democrats who [deported over 2 million people]; it was Democrats who implemented family detention. If this continues, the immigrant community, the undocumented community, Latinos, all kinds of people will no longer see any political party as viable or trust-worthy. Neither party helps us.”
“That’s why the response to the undocumented community from liberals and Democrats can’t just be, ‘We’re going to go out and vote and elect a Democratic president.’ We can’t rely on one party,” Unzueta added.
#Not1More’s policy and legal director said it’s hard to get behind any politician, presidential candidate or otherwise, who isn’t willing to say that they want to dismantle the deportation machine, stop deportations, and cut back on the policies and programs that target immigrant communities. “Saying you will work toward comprehensive immigration reform is not what we need at this moment. Saying you will work on stopping deportations is what the community needs. That is the immediate concern,” she said.
In March, the Latin Post reported that “the Democratic Party leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, in addition to 223 additional members of Congress, filed the amicus brief defending DAPA and DACA’s expanded guidelines.” Advocates say those same politicians and lawmakers must provide tangible support to the undocumented community by helping to stop deportations. Whether that’s publicly pressuring the president to stop deportations after the Supreme Court ruling or lending their voice to individual cases of DAPA-qualified undocumented immigrants who are in detention or deportation proceedings, now is the time, Unzueta said.
Caceres and other members of ICE Out of Austin have been pressuring the Austin Police Department and city council for months to adopt a policy not allowing officers to ask about immigration status. Currently, Austin police officers are allowed to inquire about a person’s immigration status—and no one knows that better than Caceres, who was arrested for refusing to discuss his immigration status with an officer. Working to end these types of policies in their own communities is a way to provide the undocumented community with tangible support, the organizer said.
“I think local politicians should really look into their police departments and what policies they have around detaining immigrants,” he said. “If we can’t instate DAPA or stop deportations, we can make it more difficult to deport people. Does your local law enforcement work with ICE? Work to end that. If immigration wants an undocumented person’s information, make sure they have to come with a warrant. Ending the Priority Enforcement Program in your community, that’s tangible support,” Caceres said. “It can make you feel good to write a letter to the Supreme Court saying you’re disappointed in the ruling, but that doesn’t really do anything for us. Tangible support is ending ties with ICE. Letting folks in the community know that if they get arrested, for any reason, they will not be deported.”
In addition, advocates suggest urging local politicians to turn their communities into sanctuary cities. Joining the District of Columbia and 12 states in allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license is also a way for local politicians to provide tangible support, Caceres told Rewire.
Unzueta said she doesn’t know if President Obama will provide a moratorium on deportations and she isn’t sure if politicians who voiced support for DAPA and DACA will step up to the plate to help the undocumented community in this time of need. “Hopeful,” she said, isn’t really in her vocabulary anymore.
“I’ve been doing this a long, long time and I’ve seen so many setbacks. As long as our humanity is debated and we have to fight for basic rights, I don’t get my hopes up because I don’t want to be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean I’m hopeless,” she told Rewire. “I believe in community and I believe in organizing. I believe in the power of an organized community. I choose to invest my hope in that.”