Home – Help and Hostility: The Plight of Unauthorized Immigrants

Help and Hostility: The Plight of Unauthorized Immigrants

 Immigrants, legal and otherwise, are having a difficult year. In Europe, swarms of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war have overwhelmed the resources of many nations and fueled the rise of populist, nationalist political parties. In Britain, immigration concerns proved decisive in the vote to withdraw from the European Union. In the United States, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has promised to deport all unauthorized immigrants, while the Supreme Court — on the same day as the Brexit vote - rejected President Obama’s attempt to shield immigrants whose children were born in the United States from deportation.


Against this immigrant-unfriendly backdrop, a handful of U.S. states led by California are extending economic opportunities and otherwise assisting unauthorized immigrants, many of whom have lived in this country for decades. California is home to 2.4 million unauthorized immigrants, the most of any state. The Golden State allows them to obtain professional licenses and provides some immigrants with in-state tuition, financial aid and health insurance. Connecticut, Illinois and Washington also provide some benefits to unauthorized immigrants, including health care for children and pregnant women. These states and eight others plus the District of Columbia allow such immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.


These are bright spots on a bleak landscape. Mexico is the source of the majority of unauthorized immigrants, and many U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage have relatives or friends who are in this country without legal sanction. Citizens and unauthorized immigrants alike in this broader Latino community were disheartened by the Supreme Court decision striking down a program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, that was created by an Obama executive order. DAPA protected four million parents of children born in the United States from deportation and allowed them to obtain work permits. The overturned order also would have expanded another Obama program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which grants immunity from deportation to some immigrants brought here as children.


The high court’s decision came on a 4-4 tie, the fourth in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last February. This left in place lower court rulings favoring Texas and other states that had challenged the legality of DAPA. The Supreme Court did not engage the merits of the lower-court rulings, saying only: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in an interview with the New York Times that the result could have been worse if Scalia were still on the court, which might then have issued a precedent-setting decision limiting the president’s authority to grant such orders that would have inflicted lasting damage on the immigrants Obama was trying to protect. As it now stands, Ginsburg said, the case could return to the court when it has the full complement of nine justices, whenever that might be.


Obama promised after the court’s ruling that parents of U.S. citizens without a criminal record will remain “low priorities” for deportation. This won’t, however, protect all DAPA-eligible immigrants, some of whom are among the thousands of persons deported weekly from the United States. In many cases these deportees were found guilty of a misdemeanor years ago, often the act of entering the United States illegally or using false identity papers. Consider, for example, the case of construction worker Jose Cervantes, who has lived 18 years in the United States and is married with two daughters. He was arrested recently at his Wisconsin home and faces deportation to Mexico because he pled guilty in 2006 to working under a false identity.


This is not an isolated case. Obama, dubbed “deporter in chief” by The Economist, has deported 2.5 million people, far more than any other president, and about the same number deported from the United States in the entire 20th century. Peter Markowitz, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, wrote in the New York Times that Obama had been trying to “demonstrate his bona fides on law enforcement to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. It didn’t work.”


But after a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013 died in the House, Obama has attempted to forge a different legacy in his second term, reducing deportations to 253,413 in 2015 as well as establishing DACA and DAPA.


In California alone, DAPA would have lifted 40,000 children out of poverty, according to the Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. It also would have broadened health care coverage for other unauthorized immigrants, said Anthony Wright, executive director of California Health Access. Most non-citizens are ineligible for health insurance, but a unique California policy allows coverage under Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health program, for immigrants granted temporary relief from deportation.  Had DAPA been upheld, an estimated 500,000 unauthorized immigrants in California would have been covered by Medi-Cal.


As it is, the Golden State has done more than any state to address the health needs of unauthorized immigrants. In May, California began allowing children and teens under age 19 to participate in the state’s health program regardless of immigration status. Some 250,000 persons are eligible, with 185,000 expected to sign up. California has also petitioned the federal government to allow unauthorized immigrants to purchase health care insurance through the Affordable Care Act.


Currently, there are 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, a number that has remained essentially constant for several years. Six states — California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois — account for 60 percent of this population.


Polls show that a majority of Americans consider illegal immigration a problem but sympathize with immigrants who are already here. Gallup found in a survey last August that two-thirds of Americans favor a path to citizenship for these immigrants. There are differences among states. A poll taken for the Los Angeles Times in March found that three-fourths of Californians believe that immigrants who are here should be allowed to stay. But a June survey by the University of Texas found that a slight majority of Texans favor deporting these immigrants.


Immigration has been a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign ever since Trump launched his candidacy by calling Mexicans “rapists” and accusing them of bringing drugs into the United States. He has promised to build a high wall on the U.S.-Mexican border if he is elected. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has denounced these statements and pledged to make immigration reform an early priority if she wins the White House.


History going back to 1924 suggests that comprehensive changes in immigration law require bipartisan agreement. The last time such a consensus prevailed was in 1986, when Congress passed legislation co-authored by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-Kentucky) that was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The Simpson-Mazzoli bill was supposed to enable the United States to gain control of its borders and also provided amnesty to three million unauthorized immigrants who lived here. Simpson later acknowledged that the law fell short as a border-security measure but said the amnesty had served a useful purpose. This had long been Reagan’s view. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in 1984 during a presidential debate.


Reagan is an iconic figure, but few of today’s Republican leaders share his benign view of unauthorized immigrants. The call for deporting them didn’t start with Trump. Four years ago, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that those living illegally in the United States should “self-deport.”


Can a bipartisan consensus for comprehensive immigration reform emerge again? Certainly not in an election year in which Trump and Clinton hold diametrically opposed views. But, depending on the outcome, the situation could change after the election. Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), observes that House Speaker Paul Ryan (D-Wisconsin) has left himself open to the possibility of an immigration bill next year. Ryan has clung to a middle ground, denouncing DAPA as presidential overreach while also opposing mass deportations.


Caution is the watchword in immigration reform, says Morse. Absent any action by Congress, reform advocates are focusing on state efforts to increase economic opportunities for immigrants. That makes sense. So do state attempts to extend health care to immigrants, as a healthy immigrant community benefits everyone. Even without DAPA, California and a few other states are setting positive examples.