US President Barack Obama's plan to shield up to 4.7 million undocumented immigrants from deportation may be immensely significant, but only a comprehensive legislation from the Congress with a larger goal could do justice to immigrant expectations.
Part I: Being undocumented in the United States
Now read Part II of a four-part special series on the life struggle of Indian immigrants in the United States, by Arthur J Pais and Ritu Jha.
United States President Barack Obama in November announced a series of steps that could make life easier and more secure for nearly half of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States.
He said he would defer deportation proceedings for three years for undocumented immigrants whose children are US citizens or legal residents.
Administration officials estimate that 4.1 million people will be eligible to stay in this country under that program, the San Francisco Chronicle noted.
In the televised speech, President Obama said, ‘I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.’
Referring to a White House briefing, The Washington Post said Obama would direct the Department of Homeland Security to help students in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- by proposing, to ‘expand and extend’ the Optional Training programme that allows foreign-born STEM students and recent graduates to remain in the United States for up to 29 months.
After Obama’s announcement, a much-questioned measure -- that allowed local police to detain undocumented suspects until they can be deported -- will also be defunct.
“We get robbed and beaten up all the time,” said an Indian owner of a small convenience shop in Jersey City. “We are afraid to complain to the police because many of us have no papers.”
Among those eligible for deportation deferrals, for example, are people ‘who arrived in the US before turning 16 years old and before January 1, 2010, regardless of how old they are today.’
Two years ago, Obama’s executive order deferred deportations for such undocumented immigrants as Pratishtha Khanna, her brother Waris Shah Khanna, Yves Gomes, and Rishi Singh -- who came to America as children, joining their undocumented l parents; the so-called DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors).
The original order was limited to those who arrived here before June 2007, and eligibility was capped at age 31. It did not stop potential deportation of their parents.
In November, the President said, ‘We’re going to offer the following deal: If you have been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes -- you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.’
None of the changes Obama announced is going to happen in a hurry, some commentators added.
‘Applications for the deferrals won’t be accepted until the middle of next year, and other programs that require new rules, such as changes to the H-1b visa programme, could take 18 months,’ administration officials were quoted as saying in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Immigrant advocates welcomed the announcement, but said only a comprehensive legislation from the Congress with a larger goal could do justice to immigrant expectations.
“This action,” said Ami Gandhi, executive director, South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, “will provide relief for many South Asian individuals, including undocumented parents of citizens or legal permanent residents; childhood arrivals; victims of crimes and trafficking; high-skilled workers and their spouses; and foreign entrepreneurs
Activists also said if one President could sign an executive order, another President could revoke that order just as easily.
‘While the President’s executive action is immensely significant,’ said one Asian- Pacific organization statement, ‘one thing remains certain: Congress must work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform.’
“President Obama’s announcement is a major and necessary step toward curing our broken immigration system,” Kalpana V Peddibhotla, a San Francisco Bay Area-based immigration attorney, told rediff.com.
“His speech focused on three areas for improvement, including border security, easing the path for high-skilled immigrants, students, and entrepreneurs and providing deferred action for certain undocumented immigrants. I think this approach is commonsense.”
“As a nation, we cannot ignore the simple reality that there are millions of hardworking people in the US, American in every way but for papers, who are forced to live in the shadows simply due to political gridlock. As an immigration (law) practitioner, I see the reality of an overburdened legal system that cannot effectively deal with these large numbers, placing court dates years out into the future. And for what ultimate end? Sending them back is a great political slogan, but it is simply devoid of reality and humanity.”
Peddibhotla helped Mandeep Chahal, a University of California-Davis student who had a bright medical career in the US, from deportation in 2011. Chahal had come to the US illegally as a child with her parents.
President Obama, Peddibhotla said, had the legal authority to determine what the immigration enforcement priorities would be, especially when the current system was overburdened.
“I am glad that he is choosing to exert those priorities against criminals, and not children and families,” Peddibhotla said.
South Asians, she said, “have the fourth-largest undocumented population, and that group could benefit from the President’s executive action. We also have the largest users of the H-1B programme, with idle spouses on H-4, who are intelligent, educated people who could make a contribution to the US through the President’s executive action.”
Similarly, she said, immigrant would-be entrepreneurs could benefit, as could bright students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in American universities.
“We applaud the tremendous courage of undocumented community leaders, whose bravery and determination moved the President to take action,” said Reshma Shamasunder, executive director, California Immigrant Policy Centre.
“And we welcome the announcement of deportation relief as a key step on the road to inclusion. Yet, there are many more steps to travel on that road. We know that as many households across our state rejoice at the freedom from fear which may soon become a reality for them, many other households mourn their exclusion from relief. We have not forgotten them. We also urge the President to rethink his approach to our border communities. The dignity and rights of border residents should also be protected. We have not forgotten them.”
Madhuri Nemali, another San Francisco Bay Area immigration attorney, said her clients are not people who had crossed the border illegally. Many were on H1 visa and have lost their job or had come with tourist visas and overstayed.
The steps announced by Obama, Nemali said, “will increase options available to entrepreneurs and high-skilled workers, allowing them greater freedom and a better ability to take part in the American dream.”
Image: A man holds his nine-month-old son while watching President Barack Obama’s White House speech on immigration at a viewing party at Alliance San Diego in San Diego, California.
Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/Reuters