After judge's ruling, lives left in limbo

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Rachel arrived in the U.S. when she was 15 and is raising two children who are American citizens. She’s a high school graduate and owns a small business. She’s also been stuck in the immigration court backlog for the past four years. She would have been able to apply this week for temporary relief under an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Obama announced in November. Instead, she’s at risk of deportation to a country she hasn’t seen in 20 years.

Edna has spent the past 20 years trying to become a legal U.S resident. A mother of citizen children, she would have been eligible for relief under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, which Obama also announced in November. The Department of Homeland Security recently granted Edna a discretionary deportation reprieve, but without immigration documentation, she can’t legally work or drive.

Rachel and Edna — both of whom came to me seeking legal help — are facing incredibly difficult situations. But they’re just two of the people whose lives and dignity hang in the balance after a U.S. district judge on Monday blocked those programs from taking effect. Both would have offered temporary, three-year deportation reprieves and work permits, but not permanent residency or citizenship, to some undocumented immigrants.

Texas and 25 other states had sued the federal government in a carefully chosen forum in Brownsville, claiming that Obama had acted without constitutional authority. 

The judge, Andrew Hanen, didn’t rule on the constitutionality of Obama’s actions. He did, however, decide that Texas — which has already spent some $4.25 million in taxpayer money challenging the Obama administration in court in recent years, mostly unsuccessfully — had standing to sue because of the supposed economic impact of issuing benefits like driver’s licenses. Hanen also ruled that Obama’s orders didn’t comply with the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public notice and comment for new regulations.

The Obama administration maintains, as do many legal scholars, that the president indeed had the authority to take these actions. Issuing temporary immigration relief has always been a power of the executive. The White House will likely seek a stay or otherwise appeal the judge’s ruling, and chances are the administration will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, Obama’s other directives, including new deportation enforcement priorities that were not challenged in court, will move forward.

While the new enforcement priorities will afford some undocumented immigrants relief from deportation, those granted reprieves will still lack work authorization or other immigration documentation. Without evidence of federal registration, they’re precluded from lawful employment or acquiring driver’s licenses, automobile insurance or private health insurance.

A diverse array of Americans agrees that our government cannot and should not deport an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. In the face of prolonged congressional inaction on immigration reform, however, the status quo is untenable. In fiscal year 2013, the Department of Homeland Security deported about 370,000 individuals, 72,000 of whom were parents of U.S. citizen children. Nationwide, the federal immigration court backlog is about 430,000 cases long, with 75,000 of those in Texas alone.

Texas and the 25 other states responsible for blocking Obama’s orders are perpetuating an insupportable state of affairs for the estimated 4.4 million people whom these programs will help. The states’ pettifogging arguments against alleviating the impossible situations faced by those like Rachel and Edna are a discredit to the magnanimity of our great state.

Jacqueline L. Watson

Immigration lawyer