President Barack Obama rolled out a plan last week to bypass Congress and reform parts of U.S. immigration policy through executive order, a move that prompted an emotional response from parties on both sides of the issue.
The actions, which were taken in lieu of legislation, will be phased in during the next three to six months and have paved the way for previously undocumented family members of lawful residents to remain in the United States legally, while also expanding deferred action protection to more immigrants who arrived here as minors.
Opponents of the executive orders criticized Mr. Obama for taking a unilateral approach to immigration reform, some calling it an overreach and others simply saying it’s not in line with the desires of the majority of U.S. citizens.
Supporters, on the other hand, admit to having mixed feelings about the actions.
“The Latino community is happy—something is better than nothing, so there’s hope, but there’s no small amount of uncertainty as to how much this immigration reform will help,” said Sister Mary Beth Moore, head of Centro Corazón de Maria, a nonprofit organization helping Hispanic immigrants that operates out of St. Rosalie’s Roman Catholic Church in Hampton Bays. “There is a feeling of gratitude, anticipation, anxiety and disappointment.”
Because of the nature of executive orders, the steps taken by Mr. Obama could be wiped away just as quickly by his successor two years from now, which is something the immigrant community is very conscious of, Ms. Moore said, adding that she is still hopeful that the next Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
In the meantime, Ms. Moore said she and her organization plan on helping the local immigrant community navigate the new systems as they go into effect. Right now, she’s advising immigrants to gather up as much documentation as possible, but also to be wary of unknown people offering unsolicited “help.”
“We’re admonishing them to think and to act with good sense and not to be carried away by offers,” she said. “Especially when those offers include paying money down.”
The president’s plan is projected to give protection to nearly five million undocumented immigrants, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, although that still leaves millions of undocumented or unauthorized immigrants “in the shadows,” to use the parlance of Mr. Obama’s speech.
Jeffrey Garro, a 28-year-old Hampton Bays resident, calls himself a “Dreamer,” the term that has been ascribed to the 1.2 million young people eligible for temporary protection against deportation thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program implemented in 2012. Mr. Garro said while he feels the president’s actions are a step in the right direction, he cannot fully support them and he worries they may create more problems than solutions.
Mr. Garro’s parents brought him and his two brothers to Hampton Bays nearly 21 years ago, leaving their native Costa Rica by plane with travel visas in hand. Although the temporary visas have long since expired, the family has remained in Hampton Bays, with Mr. Garro’s mother and father working as a housekeeper and painter, respectively, to put their three children through college.
When DACA went into affect in 2012, Mr. Garro was able to obtain a two-year work authorization from the federal government, because he obtained a high school diploma and earned degrees from Suffolk County Community College and St. Francis College. However, he does not have legal standing in the U.S., and because of this his parents are not able to apply for legal status of their own. Mr. Garro feels this is one of the shortcomings of the president’s action.
“My parents have been here for almost 21 years—they’ve been trying to be law-abiding citizens and raise a family, yet they have no protection,” he said. “There are certain gaping holes that were left open despite the president’s actions.”
One of Mr. Obama’s executive orders expands DACA work authorizations to three years instead of two years and allows people born before June 15, 1981, the previous cut-off, to be eligible for DACA protection. It also makes eligible young people who arrived as late as 2010 instead of the current 2007 date. These changes will go into effect 90 days after Mr. Obama’s speech.
Mr. Garro said more needs to be done for these young people. The term “Dreamer” is derived from a 13-year-old bill known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act that has long been seen as the standard for giving young people brought to this country as children a path to citizenship. Mr. Garro said giving Dreamers a chance at true legal status should be Congress’s top priority.
“We can provide a real benefit moving forward for this country,” he said. “Our future is a little clearer in the sense that we have a lot of taxable years ahead of us. We have a lot of opportunities to help this country if given the chance.”
For those immigrants who do qualify for legal status, including those whose children, parents or spouses are legal U.S. residents, the action will give them more security, which Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joseph Gergela said he hopes will bolster the workforce in the Suffolk County Agriculture industry.
Mr. Gergela said there are roughly between 5,000 and 7,000 immigrant and migrant farm workers on Long Island, most from Central and South America, with some others from Eastern Europe and other countries such as Pakistan and India. He said he wold like to see more programs for legally bringing farm workers into the U.S.
“Let’s get Congress to act with the president and change something comprehensively,” he said. “The reality is that we have people here without proper credentials. Let’s get them out of the shadows, let’s get them above board. If some of them become citizens, that’s a good thing.”
With many foreign workers also occupying jobs in hospitality and tourism industries, Mr. Gergela said the immigrant workforce is tremendously important to Long Island, adding that restrictions on immigration hurt his industry by limiting the available workforce. “It’s artificially driven the cost of labor tremendously,” he said. “We’re price takers—we have to compete on an everyday world market where the price is determined by the buyers not the sellers, so we’re on the short end of that stick.”
The president’s decision to act alone has set up a battle for the incoming 114th Congress before its newest members have even taken the oath of office, with Republicans claiming he violated his Constitutional authority. Mr. Obama’s response to his Congressional critics: “pass a bill.”
Newly elected U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin said he anticipates the issue coming up during his first term in office and he hopes to pass a bill with support from both sides and prove that Washington can be functional, though he said he wouldn’t rule out voting for another government shutdown if it would “help the country on the other side.”
“The problem with this president is when he says, ‘Pass the bill,’ he means pass the bill he wants,” Mr. Zeldin said. “His idea of compromise is getting exactly what he wants.”
Mr. Zeldin’s predecessor, outgoing U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, said that he believes the best way to address immigration is through legislation, but he supports the president’s decision to take executive action in face of a Republican-led House of Representatives that refused to vote on a bipartisan reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013.
Mr. Bishop said he feels confident immigrants will take advantage of the programs being set up by Mr. Obama despite the fickle nature of executive orders, pointing to the success of DACA.
“I don’t see that as an issue—almost 600,000 Dreamers have taken advantage of DACA, and that was an executive order,” he said. “People will take advantage of it, and they will, I’m sure, hope there will be legislation in the near future.”