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Reasons For Hope — And Caution — In Obama's Immigration Announcement

Carol Rose and Laura Rótolo: "[President Obama's immigration plan] has several components, and while some take very important steps in the right direction and give cause for celebration, others are cause for concern." Pictured: Katherine Asuncion and Cairo Mendes watch President Obama’s televised address to the nation announcing his executive action on immigration at the Student Immigrant Movement offices in Boston, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Carol Rose and Laura Rótolo: "[President Obama's immigration plan] has several components, and while some take very important steps in the right direction and give cause for celebration, others are cause for concern." Pictured: Katherine Asuncion and Cairo Mendes watch President Obama’s televised address to the nation announcing his executive action on immigration at the Student Immigrant Movement offices in Boston, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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President Obama’s announcement on immigration executive action was a long time coming and a reflection of the hard work done by communities and advocates in Massachusetts and around the country. The plan has several components, and while some take very important steps in the right direction and give cause for celebration, others are cause for concern.

We must continue to advocate for true and lasting reform in Congress to ensure that all aspiring Americans get a fair chance to contribute to the place they call home.

First, the expanded “deferred action” options for certain groups of immigrants will provide a much-needed respite from the fear of deportation, and, importantly, the opportunity to work legally in the United States. But this option is only temporary and leaves millions of deserving immigrants behind. In fact, it leaves most undocumented immigrants out of the plan altogether, helping significantly fewer than those who would have been granted a path to citizenship under the bill that the Senate passed in 2013. We must continue to advocate for true and lasting reform in Congress to ensure that all aspiring Americans get a fair chance to contribute to the place they call home.

Second, communities around the Commonwealth should be proud of their role in ending the failed “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program. As Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, put it in a memo on Thursday, November 20,  “…a fresh start and a new program are necessary,” because even the very name of the program "…has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws. Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program, and many have issued executive orders or signed laws prohibiting such cooperation…"

That list includes the mayors of Somerville and Northampton, and the city councils of Boston and Cambridge, who bravely passed local laws to limit the reach of Secure Communities. It also includes leaders such as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Congressman Joseph Kennedy, who spoke out about S-Comm’s devastating impact on local communities, and our leaders in the State House, such as Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who proposed a statewide Trust Act to limit Massachusetts’ participation in federal immigration enforcement. And, of course, it includes the hundreds upon hundreds of community members and advocates who organized for years to make this all happen.

...we face a crisis of accountability on the part of border patrol agents who act lawlessly, mistreating and abusing citizens and non-citizens. Without an oversight system to stop abuses, adding more agents to the border will only worsen the problem.

While S-Comm has been scrapped, a new program, Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), has taken its place, vowing to focus efforts on narrower categories of people and to use the so-called “detainer” system more sparingly. (Under the detainer approach, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asks that local authorities immigrants suspected of being undocumented while ICE agents decide whether to take them into federal custody.) The devil there will be in the details. It is unclear how PEP will be implemented, but it is a step in the right direction.

Finally, while enforcement turns away from some categories of immigrants, President Obama’s plan sends more resources to the border. This is a dangerous mistake. Today, border enforcement is at an all-time high, and border apprehensions are at their lowest level since the 1970s. At the same time, we face a crisis of accountability on the part of border patrol agents who act lawlessly, mistreating and abusing citizens and non-citizens. Without an oversight system to stop abuses, adding more agents to the border will only worsen the problem.

Until then, the work continues to advocate on behalf of the millions of immigrants left behind by this announcement, and those who will continue to feel the devastating effects of ramped-up enforcement, as well as the harsh immigration laws that only Congress can truly fix.


Laura Rotolo-CROPLaura Rótolo is staff counsel and community advocate for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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