WASHINGTON — Millions of undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation relief were dealt another setback on the long road to stabilizing their legal status late Monday, as a federal judge in Texas blocked President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration from moving forward.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen issued an injunction against the president’s proposed immigration initiatives, announced in November, that would have shielded up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and issued them work permits. In his ruling, Hansen sided with 26 states that filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the executive actions and said the constitutional questions at hand should be resolved before the pair of programs could proceed.
The first of the initiatives — an expanded version of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that began in 2012, and which would apply to approximately 270,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — was slated to begin accepting applications Wednesday. A second, new program, which would extend deportation relief to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), was scheduled to have begun in May. Both have been indefinitely delayed.
“I strongly disagree with Judge Hanen’s decision to temporarily enjoin implementation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Department of Justice will appeal that temporary injunction; in the meantime, we recognize we must comply with it,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement. “Accordingly, the Department of Homeland Security will not begin accepting requests for the expansion of DACA tomorrow, February 18, as originally planned. Until further notice, we will also suspend the plan to accept requests for DAPA.”
Immigration advocates said although they are confident that Hanen’s ruling will be overturned by a higher court and an ultimate legal decision will come down in their favor, the latest development in the immigration reform saga presents unique challenges for implementing the executive actions. Activists are urging undocumented immigrants eligible for the initiates to keep collecting the appropriate documentation to apply and prepare to step forward regardless of the injunction.
“I can only imagine this is heartbreaking to hear that you had been planning to stabilize your life and then a judge way out in Texas, far away, made an abstract decision and a political decision in the context of his courtroom that will have a huge impact on your life,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an organization that has lobbied aggressively for immigration reform. “Immigrant groups are ready to go out there and say this is just a speed-bump, it’s not the end of the road and they should keep getting their documents together so they can be ready to apply.”
Advocates also worry that the uncertainty now hanging over the programs may dissuade immigrants from stepping forward and taking part in the initiatives.
“There’s always been doubt with people asking, ‘What’s in it for me? Why should I give my name out to the government and give my address?’” said Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives at the New York Immigration Coalition. “There’s distrust in these policies.”
Mackler noted, nevertheless, that the uncertainty has prompted immigration advocates to throw their outreach programs into overdrive and get the message out to immigrants about exactly what the injunction means.
“This is a slowdown but not a completely stop,” she said. “We’re still moving forward and telling people they shouldn’t be afraid to come forward. We want to make sure they’re getting the right message.”
Others too noted that Hansen’s ruling took on procedural questions about the implementation of the program, but did not question the legal soundness of the president’s executive actions.
“This is not a legal attack, this is a political attack,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, an organization that has held workshops for immigrants on how to apply for DAPA and DACA.
Torres added though that the best way to make the programs permanent was to make sure immigrants register en masse when DHS does begin accepting applications, as he is sure the agency will.
“Our families are concerned, our families are confused,” he said. “The message we want to communicate to our families and to our communities is that as long as people start to register in the thousands and millions — that is something that no one can reverse.”