Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration reform: Obama to sign executive order; Republicans won't 'stand idle'

Onlookers watch as President Obama is shown on a projector near the intersection of Alameda St. and the 101 freeway in downtown Los Angeles Thursday addressing the nation with reformed immigration policy. 

President Obama addresses the nation with reforms in immigration policy in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday Nov. 20, 2014.
Onlookers watch as President Obama is shown on a projector near the intersection of Alameda St. and the 101 freeway in downtown Los Angeles Thursday addressing the nation with reformed immigration policy. President Obama addresses the nation with reforms in immigration policy in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday Nov. 20, 2014.
Stuart Palley/ KPCC

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President Barack Obama was in Las Vegas Friday to sign his executive order shielding from deportation millions of immigrants who are in the United States without authorization. While the order touches on almost every aspect of the immigration system – from immigration courts, to border security, to background checks — many details of how it will work are still unclear. Republicans, meanwhile, have said that the president's unilateral move was "damaging the presidency" and that the Republican-run House will not stand by. Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona has already filed a lawsuit contending that Obama acted outside his constitutional authority.


Update 4:36 p.m. Some immigrants may not apply due to fear of repeal

Though President Barack Obama’s executive order has given millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally the chance to stay and work, advocates say many may not apply for protection out of fear that it could be repealed after Obama leaves office, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.

After watching the president’s announcement on television Thursday night, Roberto Juarez called his sister and told her she’d probably qualify to stay because her three kids were born in the U.S.
“But she said no, she didn’t want to apply,” Juarez said. “She’s afraid.”
Juarez, who is also in the country illegally, said his sister has lived in fear since her husband was deported three years ago. Immigration agents showed up at their home early in the morning, as they were getting ready for work. His sister was so worried they would come back for her that she moved, Juarez said.
“She doesn’t want to give the government her information. What if they come and deport her too?” he said.
People had similar concerns in 2012, when the president extended protections to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Many didn’t apply out of fear that the protection could be repealed after Obama left office.

Only about half of eligible young people have applied for that program. Advocates say they expect people to stay away this time too, which is why they’ll continue pushing for guaranteed protection from Congress.

Adrian Florido/KPCC

Updated 3:00 p.m.: California paves the way

In his executive order, the president laid out changes to the Secure Communities program, which forced police to share fingerprint data with the U.S. Department of Immigration. It also required deputies to hold suspects who were undocumented until immigration officials arrived.

Critics argued the program led to large numbers of people being deported for small of offenses like traffic violations or loitering. It became so unpopular in some parts of the U.S. that local police and sheriff's departments stopped fully complying with the program. Among them was the Los Angeles Police Department.

California later passed a law called the Trust Act, which specified that officers in the state could only detain illegal immigrants for deportation if they had been convicted of serious, violent or sex crimes, or if they had recent a felony on their records.

Under Obama’s executive order, Secure Communities has been renamed the Priority Enforcement Program, and it includes policies very similar to the California Trust Act.

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano authored the Trust Act, and he said he is proud to have been on the forefront of the nation's immigration reform.

"We were a bit ahead of the curve here," he said. "So I feel hopeful. I'm glad [Obama] did it."

Ammiano said Obama’s action was encouraging, but he added that there was still a lot of work ahead for lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis, said California continues to set the example for immigration policy in the U.S. 

“[California Attorney General] Kamala Harris, who is an Obama insider of sorts, certainly has made her views about the Trust Act known, and I’m sure those views are known to administration officials,” he said.

Johnson said Obama’s revamp of Secure Communities won’t likely have much impact on California, since law enforcement in the state has already aligned to the specifications of the Trust Act. An official from Harris' office said her staff is parsing the president's new directive to see what discrepancies may exist between it and the Trust Act. If there are differences in the policies, the AG's office will work with local law enforcement to inform of them of the changes.

Updated 2:47 p.m.: Asian immigrant community reacts

After Latino immigrants, those from Asia will feel the most impact from President Obama’s executive action.

Close to 500,000 Asian immigrants are expected to benefit from the president’s decision to protect more people from deportation, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

A third of them are in California. But they’re seen as less likely to sign up for help than Latino immigrants.

"Asking for help is also a form of coming out and so people are really hesitant to do that," said Trina Lei Pasumbal, a 21-year-old immigrant from the Philippines who is in the middle of applying for legal status.

A member of ASPIRE-LA, a student immigration advocacy group, Pasumbal said some Asian immigrants may carry distrust of the government from their days in their home countries.

"There’s also a lot of shame and stigmatizing and fear in the community, so people really just want to stay in the shadows and not have to take the extra step even though they really do need it," Pasumbal said.

Stewart Kwoh, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, urged immigrants who are hesitant to come forward and seek information from his and other immigrant advocacy groups.

"We’re here to give advice and give counsel," Kwoh said.

Kwoh warned immigrants to beware of phony immigration experts who will claim to help them with applications for potentially thousands of dollars.

"That process has not been established," Kwoh said. "There’s no application yet."

Kwoh said it will be months before immigrants can apply for protection from deportation.

— Josie Huang

Updated 1:40 p.m.: Obama launches sales mission on immigration

President Barack Obama said Friday he took steps on his own to fix the immigration system because it's been "broken" for a long time and "everybody knows it."

Obama said after a year and a half of waiting it was time to do something about it.

Speaking at the Las Vegas high school where he launched his drive for Congress to send him an immigration bill, Obama outlined steps he has taken to help millions of people living in the country illegally.

They are designed to make nearly 5 million of those immigrants eligible for protection from deportation and for work permits.

Obama's action would also re-order enforcement priorities by emphasizing the deportation of new illegal arrivals and criminals.

He announced the executive actions in a nationally televised address Thursday night.

You can watch a replay of his full speech at Del Sol High below:


— Associated Press reporter Darlene Superville

Updated 9:49 a.m.: Arizona sheriff sues Obama over immigration change

An Arizona sheriff who has clashed with the federal government and made waves for cracking down on illegal immigration sued President Barack Obama to challenge his new changes to the immigration system.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio contends Obama acted outside his constitutional authority and asks the court to block the move.

The changes include making millions of immigrants illegally in the United States eligible for protection from deportation and for work permits. The changes would not go through Congress.

Obama's administration in recent years stripped 100 of Arpaio's deputies of their powers to make federal immigration arrests and filed a still-pending lawsuit against his office alleging civil rights violations, including racial profiling of Latinos.

— Associated Press

Updated 8:09 a.m.: Republicans 'will not stand idle' on immigration 

House Speaker John Boehner declared Friday that President Barack Obama was "damaging the presidency" with his unilateral action on immigration. He said the Republican-run House will not stand by, but gave no hint of what the response would be.

"I will say to you, the House will, in fact, act," Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference the morning after Obama announced plans to offer deportation relief and work permits to 5 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.

"We will listen to the American people, we will work with our members and we will work to protect the Constitution of the United States," Boehner said.

But Republicans have few good options as they scramble for a solution that satisfies irate conservatives without alienating moderates, Hispanics and other voters who will be crucial for the 2016 presidential election. Possibilities include suing Obama or trying to fight his moves through the budget process.

The situation poses a major challenge for Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., barely two weeks after midterm election victories that handed Republicans control of the Senate and increased the party's majority in the House.

Obama's move forces them to inaugurate their newly minted congressional majorities amid frantic GOP infighting that party leaders wanted to avoid. With Republicans seething over Obama's go-it-alone approach on such a contentious issue, it's an open question whether Boehner and McConnell will be able to rein in the tea party faction in Congress that forced a politically damaging government shutdown a year ago over the president's health care law.

The answer will have major implications in determining whether the GOP can hang onto its newfound control of Congress and hope to win the White House in two years.

"What did the president do? He pulled the pin on the grenade two weeks after the election," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally. "I don't think anybody knows or can predict what happens and the carnage that this creates quite frankly for the legislative process."

Boehner took issue with Obama's claim that he had to act because House Republicans never moved on the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate last year. That measure offered a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants here illegally, going further than Obama can on his own.

Boehner said it was Obama's fault because lawmakers didn't trust him after earlier unilateral moves on health care.

"He created an environment where the members would not trust him, and trying to find a way to work together was virtually impossible," Boehner said. "I warned the president over and over that his actions were making it impossible for me to do what he wanted me to do."

Conservative lawmakers are pushing to insert language in upcoming must-pass spending bills to block Obama's order. Party leaders warn that could lead to a government shutdown.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., also argues it is impossible to "defund" the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services because it pays for itself based on application fees.

Rogers is pushing for a yearlong spending bill to get spending fights out of the way, and then finding some other way to respond to Obama.

That's angered some conservatives who argued that establishment Republicans were just looking for a way out of a necessary confrontation with the president.

"They're contriving red herring arguments to get to the point where enough members will walk out of this Congress and go home for Thanksgiving and say, 'Well, there's nothing we can do,'" said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who was among a small group of conservatives arguing impeachment should be on the table as a last resort.

— Associated Press reporter Erica Werner

5:00 a.m.: Obama to sign executive order, but details still murky

A day after announcing he would act to shield from deportation millions of immigrants who are in the United States without authorization, President Barack Obama will arrive in Las Vegas Friday morning to sign that order, visiting the same school where he had announced his now-stalled immigration plan in 2013.

Friday’s executive order, detailed in a six-page “fact sheet” provided by the White House Thursday afternoon, touches on almost every aspect of the immigration system – from immigration courts, to border security, to background checks. Many details of how it will work are still unclear.

Most importantly for Southern Californians, the order will offer protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of people locally - and potentially millions statewide - who either came here as children or who are parents of American citizens and legal residents and have lived here at least five years.

California is home to approximately two-and-a-half to three million unauthorized immigrants, depending on the estimate. The vast majority - 83 percent - have been in the United States five years or more, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. An estimated 35 percent live with at least one U.S. citizen child.

"Allowing those parents to have relief from deportation … is probably going to lead to a stronger sense of community and more of an investment in the educational system from those families - and from those kids,” said Laura Hill, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

The other big group of people who will benefit from the order are those who arrived as children. Obama will expand the existing deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include immigrants who arrived as children before Jan. 1, 2010 – regardless of how old they are. Until now, you had to be born after 1981 (and have arrived before June 15, 2007).

"The president has the courage to use his executive power to fix what has been long broken, and that the U.S. Congress has been unable to fix," said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a Central American community organization in Los Angeles that provides low-cost legal help and other assistance to immigrants.

While the president’s announcement has opened the door to legal employment for millions of undocumented immigrants, it can be a touchy subject for some working-class Americans who face unemployment.
“As far as I’m concerned, they grab the American citizens’ opportunities -- like the jobs,” Lolita Namocatcat, a U.S. citizen originally from the Philippines, said while waiting at bus stop in Los Angeles.
Namocatcat said she came to the U.S. legally in 1985 and waited twelve years to gain citizenship. Even so, in recent years she’s struggled to find steady work and to make ends meet, and she fears that competing with the immigrants now allowed to find work could make her job searches even harder.
Economists disagree on whether undocumented immigrants actually take jobs that would otherwise go to Americans. There is some consensus they tend to lower wages for the lowest skilled workers, like Namocatcat, while boosting them for everyone else.
Leo Skelton, who was carrying a bag of aluminum cans to a recycling facility on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, said he would like to see the president focus more on the needs of U.S. citizens like him, who have struggled through poverty during the recession.

He also feared that giving legal status to millions of immigrants could make it harder to find good-paying work.
But he was torn about the president’s announcement. Many of the people he meets at recycling facilities are immigrants, he said. They gather cans and bottles all day because they can’t get jobs, and he said he would have a difficult time denying them an opportunity to find work.
“I treat people like they treat me,” he said.

Even with Obama’s expansion, some people are still left out - even some young people. Some immigrant groups said Thursday they'd fight for more.

“We are not going to rest until everyone is free," Pablo Alvarado is with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told about 200 advocates gathered at a giant inflatable screen on Alameda to watch the president's speech. “Are we ready for that?”

He and others had hoped the president would give deportation protection to all 11 million people in the country illegally. Not just the 5 million or so covered by his executive order.

Fifita, 27, arrived from Tonga on a student visa nine years ago. She was 17.

Even under Thursday’s announcement, she wouldn’t qualify. Deferred action only applies to those who arrived before age 16. 

“Man, this sucks,” said Fifita, a mechanical engineering student in Torrance who did not want her last name published for fear of deportation. “I’m always falling in between.”

— KPCC staff