Last week, President Obama announced the Immigration Accountability Executive Action, which temporarily defers deportation and provides work permits for an estimated 4.9 million undocumented immigrants. While this announcement is a welcome effort to bring undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows,” advocates remain deeply concerned over how the executive action will affect asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable groups. Asylum seekers in the United States already face a process that largely fails to protect their rights. In the absence of comprehensive changes – beyond what the new order provides –the defects in our asylum system will remain, if not worsen.
Among other reforms, the executive action instructs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create Deferred Action for Parents (DAP) – a program that will suspend deportation and provide work authorization for parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents born on or before November 20, 2014, and have resided in the United States for at least five years, passed background checks, paid fees, and are not otherwise ineligible.
Significantly, the president’s action also rolled out a Priority Enforcement Program, which creates categories of “good” and “bad” immigrants, heightening existing concerns for asylum seekers. In the “bad immigrant” priority category, along with “terrorists,” “gang members,” and “felons,” are those apprehended at the U.S. border. Measures to identify asylum seekers arriving at the border already fail to adequately screen those who may qualify for humanitarian protection. Ramped up efforts to militarize the border and expeditiously deport recent arrivals will make an already defective process even worse.
No reforms to the existing detention system were included in the executive action. In fact, in less-reported news, DHS announced plans to open a new detention facility in Dilley, Texas, which will house approximately 2,400 individuals, most of whom are families with children fleeing deadly violence in Central America. Asylum seekers arriving at the border, asking for protection, will continue to be detained.
Some advocates also question how the new program will affect those who have already been waiting excessively-long periods of time for hearings or interviews at immigration court and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Until Congress acts to fully fund these agencies, asylum applicants who already wait in limbo for several years to have their cases heard may now have to wait even longer.
The president devoted about half of his announcement last week to discussing American values, saying his actions were a reflection of “who we want to be as a nation.” But do we really want to be a nation that deports vulnerable children back to countries where they are forced to join violent gangs? Do we want to be a nation that locks up women who have committed no crime, but are trying to keep their children safe? If our immigration system is to truly be a reflection of our values, we have a long way to go.
Of course, it is important to celebrate our victories. President Obama’s actions will bring reprieve, albeit temporarily, to many members of our communities. This is due primarily to the tireless efforts of grassroots activists who pressed hard at every level of government, from the bottom up. But for the millions more who were left out of this action and continue to wait in fear and uncertainty, we must keep the momentum going. There is a long way to go before we have a truly humane immigration system that upholds American values. Let’s get to work.