Supreme Court’s decision has immigrants expressing dashed hopes, looking to election

Published 9:52 am Friday, June 24, 2016

By Mila Koumpilova

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Karen Velez and her mom, Silvia Barron, were at the kitchen table Thursday morning when the news they had dreaded came on the Spanish-language channel Telemundo: The U.S. Supreme Court had deadlocked over an Obama administration program that could shield Barron from deportation and grant her a three-year work permit.

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The program, for parents of U.S. citizen children, would remain blocked.

As many as 30,000 of the estimated 90,000 immigrants living in Minnesota without legal status likely qualify for that program or an expansion of an earlier initiative for young people brought here as children. Thursday’s court impasse dealt them a grave disappointment and promised to add fuel to an election campaign marked by intensifying anti-immigrant sentiment.

Minnesota immigration advocates said they will channel that frustration into a get-out-the-vote push and state-level initiatives to grant immigrants living in the state illegally more rights. Meanwhile, critics of Obama’s immigration plan said the outcome affirmed their argument that the president overstepped his authority by acting without Congress’ blessing.

For immigrants like Barron and husband Juan Velez, the decision brought an emotional day of tears and anger.

“This decision leaves us worse off than when we started, when we had hope,” said Velez.

Pointing to a long-standing stalemate in congressional efforts to reform the U.S. immigration system, Obama announced in late 2014 he would act alone. The new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) would grant three-year deportation stays and work permits to longtime residents who pass criminal background checks and pay taxes. The president also set out to expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to include more immigrants who came to the United State before age 16. Nationally, 4 million were expected to benefit.

A coalition of states led by Texas promptly challenged the move in court. A Texas federal judge blocked the programs, and an appeals court let that injunction stand.

In the run-up to Thursday’s ruling, Emilia Gonzalez Avalos had allowed herself to feel optimistic. Avalos, who has two children born in the United States, leads the group Navigate, which advocates for young people living without legal status in Minnesota.

The organization had been gearing up for either outcome: If the court allowed the government to roll out the programs, advocates would step up a campaign against fraudsters preying on applicants. If it did not, they would ramp up efforts to get out the vote and support comprehensive immigration reform, which unlike Obama’s program would offer a path to citizenship.

But even as she hedged her bets as an activist, Avalos thought about a string of Supreme Court decisions on immigration that advocates have welcomed in recent years, including a ruling striking down a restrictive Arizona immigration law.

“We have the head count to have a good outcome,” she told her partner, who is also eligible for DAPA.

Then, Thursday’s decision came, guaranteeing the programs won’t be implemented during the Obama presidency. The outcome does not affect the original DACA, which has almost 6,000 recipients in Minnesota, or the administration’s deportation priorities, which have focused immigration enforcement more narrowly on people with significant criminal records and recent arrivals to the country.

For Karen Velez, who qualified for the original DACA in 2012, the program has brought many benefits: She got a driver’s license and a position as a store manager she believes would have been out of reach. A full-time student at Inver Hills Community College, she is poised to transfer to George Washington University next year.

So the Velez family was intensely aware of how DAPA would improve their lives. Their 11-year-old son was born in the United States. It would allow Velez’s father, Juan, to start his own maintenance business and hire a crew. Barron could get a driver’s license so she could drive her son to after-school activities without the fear of being pulled over.

“Now we feel stuck all over again,” said Juan Velez.

John Keller of the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center said the development is a major setback for the hopes of immigrants caught in limbo. But he also said by giving immigrants more job flexibility, a sense of security and an incentive to pay taxes, the programs would have been a positive for Minnesota, where demographers have sounded alarms about an aging, shrinking workforce: “We really need these folks in Minnesota, and we’ve lost a tremendous opportunity.”

To Linda Huhn, a Minnesota member of the national group NumbersUSA, which argues for limiting immigration, Obama’s programs would create more competition for jobs and would reward those who have broken the nation’s immigration laws, possibly encouraging more illegal crossings.

“If you allow a group of people to disobey the law, you are undermining all laws,” Huhn said.

Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, says allowing the injunctions against the deportation reprieve programs to stand affirms his belief that the president did not have the authority to act without Congress.

“Such an impactful and large-scale program should not be enacted unilaterally,” he said.

To Feere, the outcome Thursday raises the stakes of the upcoming presidential election: The next commander-in-chief can do away with DAPA and DACA — or choose a Supreme Court justice who would break the tie once lower courts have heard the case on its merits.