Mirna and Victor Soberanes sprang to action last November after President Obama unveiled a plan to allow as many as 4 million immigrants to stay and work in the United States.
The couple rushed to compile birth certificates, school records for their U.S.-born daughters and other proof that Victor, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally 14 years ago, qualified.
“It was a great opportunity for us to stay together as a family,” Mirna Soberanes said.
But the documents still sit in a folder in their south Minneapolis home.
A year after the president announced that he was taking executive action to grant temporary work permits and deportation reprieves to parents of children born in the U.S., the initiative remains on hold. This month, a federal appeals court upheld an injunction, making its prospects even murkier.
For critics of executive action, the court decision affirmed an argument that Obama overstepped his authority with initiatives they say reward those who broke the nation’s immigration laws. For immigrants and their advocates who had hailed the long-awaited chance to step out of immigration limbo, a growing disillusionment has set in.
“Hopes have turned to frustration,” said Felipe Illescas of the nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities. “Some people are discouraged 100 percent.”
Local activists are channeling that frustration into a push to turn out the Latino vote in next year’s election, in which immigration is shaping up to be a key issue.
On Nov. 20 last year, Victor, Mirna and their daughters, now 4 and 6, tuned in to Obama’s prime-time announcement. After several failed attempts to pass immigration reform in Congress, Obama said, he was acting alone. His plan would give immigrants in the country illegally a “chance to get right with the law,” while freeing up resources to deport felons and beef up border security.
A new program, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, would grant three-year deportation stays and work permits to longtime residents who pass criminal background checks and start paying taxes. Obama also would expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to include more immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16.
Victor Soberanes, who installs flooring for a living, is among some 30,000 out of about 90,000 immigrants without legal status in Minnesota who could benefit.
He was thrilled.
Several years ago, he spent two weeks in immigration detention after an arrest for careless driving. Although immigration authorities did not pursue deportation, the episode has haunted the family.
The night of the announcement, Victor recalled, “we spoke about how I would finally get my papers, and everything would be OK.”
Through the program, he might be able to get a driver’s license and travel to see his aging parents in Mexico for the first time in 14 years. And, while Obama’s programs don’t offer most immigrants a path to citizenship, for Victor they might.
Some recipients of the 2012 DACA program have gotten an “unintended, really amazing benefit,” said Minneapolis immigration attorney Paula Schwartzbauer. With special government permission, they can travel abroad. Their return to the U.S. supplants the earlier illegal entry, which allows U.S. citizen spouses to sponsor them for a green card, which puts them on track for citizenship.
Mirna, who is a U.S. citizen, might be able to sponsor Victor if he were to qualify for DAPA.
Within weeks of Obama’s announcement, some local immigration attorneys had fielded hundreds of calls. Advocates hosted nearly 40 packed workshops statewide. The Minneapolis and St. Paul foundations spent $45,000 on an information campaign. The city of Minneapolis earmarked $50,000 in its 2015 budget for a new center to assist applicants.
Early decision not to be
Then, the week the government was scheduled to start accepting DACA applications, a federal judge in Texas blocked the programs. He sided with 26 states that argued that the president lacked authority to roll out these programs, which they said would place new costs on them and spur more illegal arrivals.
In Minneapolis, two nonprofit groups went ahead with the planned opening of the city-funded center at the grocery Mercado Central. After all, some legal experts, such as the University of St. Thomas’ Virgil Wiebe, were predicting swift resolution to the legal standoff in Obama’s favor. “I had that prediction completely wrong,” Wiebe says now.
An Obama administration appeal landed before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, considered one of the nation’s most conservative. After lengthy deliberation, the court let the injunction stand earlier this month. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court were to take up the administration’s appeal in its next session, a favorable ruling would leave the government scrambling to launch the programs during Obama’s final months in office.
Critics of the executive action say they feel vindicated.
Loras Holmberg, a Minnesota member of the group NumbersUSA, says he saw the executive action as another Obama administration step to erode respect for the nation’s immigration laws, with such repercussions as a recent push to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the state illegally.
“The Fifth Circuit judges recognized the president exceeded his authority,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies. “This is the first time a court has acknowledged federal policies on immigration have a profound effect on the states.”
Immigrants and their advocates have scaled back their expectations.
“We’re all really disappointed,” said Sandra Feist, chair of the local American Immigration Lawyers Association chapter. “Not much has changed during the past year.”
Feist, who focuses on employment-based cases, said she’s waiting for the government to implement most of the legal immigration changes the president promised last November, such as giving immigrants caught in green-card backlogs more flexibility to change employers.
Emilia Gonzalez Avalos of the group Navigate, which helps undocumented students gain access to college, missed the age cutoff for the 2012 DACA program by months. Avalos and her partner, who have a 6-year-old daughter born in the U.S., likely would qualify for DAPA. But she didn’t get her hopes up last year: “It’s hard for me to be seduced any more by everything the politicians tell us,” Avalos said.
Others allowed themselves to plan: applying for better-paying, more stable jobs and living without fear of run-ins with immigration authorities.
Avalos meets with high school seniors who arrived in the U.S. between 2007 and 2010, which would make them eligible for the expanded DACA program. They had to rein in hopes for more access to scholarships and off-campus jobs to help pay for college.
Wiebe said new deportation guidelines Obama also unveiled last November, which are not part of the lawsuit, mean that immigrants who qualify for DAPA are unlikely to face deportation: “Ironically, these people are still here, living in the shadows.”
As GOP presidential candidates have vowed to discontinue Obama’s programs if elected, advocates wonder if some immigrants would sit out DAPA even if it took effect.
They are increasingly looking to the 2016 election, too. The Minneapolis and St. Paul foundations are joining a national push to encourage green-card holders to become citizens so they can vote. A Center for American Progress study released this week estimates that 1.6 million eligible voters live in households where someone qualifies for DAPA, including 7,400 in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Victor Soberanes is still hopeful he’ll get to apply for DAPA: “We just have to wait.”