By Mark Roth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
To President Barack Obama, his executive action on immigration on Nov. 20 would give millions of undocumented immigrants “a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future.”
To Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the president’s action “will only encourage more people to come here illegally, putting their lives at risk.”
But to Emiliano Cabrera, the president’s initiative simply means he can step out of the shadows.
In many ways, Cabrera, a 53-year-old construction worker from Honduras who lives in Carnegie, Pa., has been as solid and real as any American over the past 14 years. He has worked steadily, reunited with his wife and had a child who is a U.S. citizen. He has also sent an estimated $300,000 back to relatives in Honduras.
But he and his wife, Esperanza Vindel, are here illegally, and for the first time, Obama’s actions may allow him to get a Social Security number, acquire a Pennsylvania driver’s license and, most of all, provide him with the peace of mind that federal agents will not swoop down some day to arrest him.
Speaking through an interpreter, Cabrera said that having legal status, even if it is temporary, “will bring me internal peace.”
“I always see my wife crying,” he said, fearing the possibility of deportation. “She is thinking, if my daughter is taken away from me and I get sent back, I’ll die.”
Under the president’s action, undocumented immigrants like Cabrera and Vindel can work here legally and avoid deportation if they can document that they have been here five years or more and if they are parents of a child who was born here or who is a legal permanent resident.
Joanna Bernstein of Casa San Jose, a community center that helps Latinos, is working with several to help them meet the executive action’s criteria. “Basically,” she said, “you have to be able to document an undocumented life. You have to prove you’ve been here for five years without leaving, so you need letters of support from your employer or an agency or even a restaurant you’ve been going to.” Applicants also must not have serious criminal records, she said, “and if all that has ever happened to you was that you were caught at the border and sent back” — which did occur for Cabrera the first time he tried to cross the Rio Grande to Texas — “that’s not going to make you ineligible.”
The action could cover an estimated 5 million of the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University law professor and immigration expert, said the president’s latest action is aimed at undocumented immigrants “who have been working hard as farm workers or construction laborers and who are technically deportable, but whom many people feel we shouldn’t expend our energies on.”
There is also the question of what the executive action will do to any chances of long-term immigration reform.
Immigration activists and scholars are divided. Some feel the administration’s unilateral move has doomed any chance for changes in immigration law until after the next presidential election in 2016. Others feel it might open up the possibility of piecemeal reforms, especially since Republicans will soon control both chambers of Congress.
Yale-Loehr sees a deep freeze on any further progress.
“If I were a betting man, I would say the chances of comprehensive immigration reform being enacted in 2015 or 2016 are almost nil.” Many Republicans would like some kind of reform to attract more Latino voters, he said, “but they run into members of their party in the House where in their own districts, immigration is not an issue. That tension in the Republican party will make it very hard for leaders like John Boehner to get a package that can move through the House.”
Steven Camarota, research director for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he thinks movement on immigration bills is unlikely because “I accept the common wisdom that the executive action so poisons the well that why would you trust Obama to enforce any immigration reform that you would pass?”
Congress has authorized only short-term spending on the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration. Funding for the department will run out at the end of February, which some Republicans will use as leverage against the Obama executive action.
Some think that Republicans need to take the political initiative away from the president, and might do it by addressing different parts of the immigration issue.
Russell Harrison, government relations director for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said he could see the House first passing a bill to strengthen border control, and then moving on to bills that would liberalize rules for agricultural workers and for high-tech immigrants. He noted that the House, led by Republicans, passed a bill in 2012 that would have given permanent-residency green cards to up to 55,000 foreign-born Ph.D. and master’s degree students who graduate from U.S. colleges in science, technology, engineering or math.
“If the Republicans abandon the idea of all or nothing, then possibilities open up,” Harrison said. “And then the question is, will the Democrats support something rather than nothing?”
Vivek Wadhwa, an author and professor who supports increasing high-skilled immigration, said that even though many people see the Republican Party as opposing immigration reform, it is the Democrats and the Obama administration that have made immigration an all-or-nothing proposition.
“The president, Democratic congressional leaders and others are worried that if they make concessions and agree to all the easy things on this issue, the Republicans will take credit for immigration reform and there will be less importance for amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. That has been driven by the Democrats’ desire to retain their strong advantage among Hispanic voters, he said, “and it’s this obsession with trying to shift the electoral balance to favor the Democrats that is screwing this thing up.”
Demetrios Papademetriou, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, agrees. In an interview earlier this year, before the midterm elections and Obama’s executive action, he said that “what the advocates of immigration reform care most about is the 12 million illegal immigrants. Basically, the system has been held hostage” to the idea that “the only deal that can be cut must include the 12 million.”
Harrison thinks the Obama action “will have a marginally beneficial impact on the workforce, but it’s minor,” partly because many of the illegal immigrants are already working.
Camarota was not so sanguine.
While some have argued that the executive action’s legal protections will make it less likely that undocumented immigrants will work under the table for lower pay than others, he said it also could mean “they will now compete for a host of jobs that are held now by natives,” such as security guards or UPS delivery drivers or school janitors, all of whom need security clearances that undocumented immigrants previously could not satisfy.
Paul McDaniel, a staff member of the liberal Immigration Policy Center in Washington, said undocumented immigrants will probably be able to compete for more jobs and pay federal taxes under the Obama action, but “the thing we have to remember about the executive action is that these are temporary changes and some of these things can only be permanently changed by Congress.”
The uncertainty of the executive action is also an issue for Emiliano Cabrera. “He said this does still give him fear because you don’t know whether Congress or the president will change this in the future,” said Casa San Jose’s Bernstein.
Cabrera remembers the terror he felt when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived at a job site where he was working and arrested another immigrant.
But part of Obama’s executive action is aimed at getting immigration officials to focus more on criminals and more recent undocumented immigrants for deportation, and not those who have stayed out of trouble and worked steadily. “I personally think pigs will fly before this would get reversed,” Bernstein said.
While Cabrera and his wife are probably safe, another part of his family may face deportation. His daughter Rosibel, 20, one of Cabrera’s grown children from a previous relationship who are living in the U.S. and Honduras, was detained after crossing the Mexican border this summer with her 8-year-old son. They are living with Cabrera while waiting to see how immigration enforcement proceedings against them turn out.
The one avenue to immigration reform that no one is talking about is the comprehensive Senate bill that was passed last year with bipartisan support. The bill was never introduced in the House and has remained in limbo.
The Senate bill would have strengthened border security by employing nearly 19,000 more guards and building 700 miles of new fencing, and then would have allowed illegal immigrants to get temporary legal status for themselves and their families. After working for 10 years and paying penalties and back taxes, they would have been eligible to apply for green cards and eventually for citizenship. The bill also would have modernized employment-based immigration by creating tens of thousands of new visas for both high-skilled and lower skilled workers.
Most important, it would have abolished the per-country limits that now say no nation can have more than 7 percent of all green cards. “The per country caps are creating outrageously disproportionate impacts on the Chinese and Indians, who have the skills that our high tech employers say they need,” said New York immigration attorney Matthew Kolodziej.
Although he hardly dares to dream about it, Emiliano Cabrera said that if he had the chance, he would love to become a U.S. citizen.
“It would totally clean my mind,” he said, “I wouldn’t have any more fear about being illegal. I would also think about starting my own business.”
Photo: Emiliano Cabrera, 53, is from Honduras and his daughter Emily Cabrera Vindel, 8, was born in North Carolina. Cabrera came to the United States in 2000 and could be protected from deportation under Obama’s immigration plan. He said he is sick of living under the threat of deportation and that having papers would bring him “internal peace.” (Julia Rendleman/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)