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Immigration changes seen as temporary fix

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Like many immigrants watching President Obama’s announcement on immigration reform, Renata Borges Teodoro had split feelings.

“I know it’s going to help a lot of people, but it’s hard when you know there are a lot of people being left behind,” she said.

In Teodoro’s case, many of those people were in the same room at the offices of the Student Immigration Movement of Massachusetts, where she serves as Lead Coordinator.

“Some people were so excited and wanted to call their families,” Teodoro said. “Others cried right on the spot. It’s really a hard moment for all of us.”

In what is widely seen as an imperfect solution to the nation’s immigration problem, Obama used his executive powers to grant temporary status to as many as 4.4 million of the 11 million immigrants said to be in the United States without documentation, providing them with a path to citizenship.

Among those eligible are people who came to the United States as children under the age of 16 before 2010, parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders, spouses of workers here on HB 1 visas, which typically allow them to work in hard-to-fill U.S. jobs and students pursing degrees in technology, science and engineering.

While there is no path to citizenship for the remaining 6 million undocumented immigrants, Obama said he would scrap the controversial Secure Communities program, which required local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants after arrests for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. That program was part of an enforcement push under the Obama administration that led to the deportation of more than 2 million immigrants — more deportations than during any other presidential administration.

The Massachusetts state police and mayors of cities including Boston and Somerville have already opted out of Secure Communities.

Obama’s executive order came after years of congressional wrangling during which Republican lawmakers blocked Democratic proposals to provide amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said the executive order should be seen as an initial step in a tough political environment.

“It’s going to be tough, going into this new congressional session,” she said. “There have been a lot of changes. This was the way for him to begin the conversation.”

Obama’s executive order highlights the unequal nature of immigration reform. While during much of the 20th century, federal quotas severely limited immigration from African, Asian and Latin American countries and favored the majority white populations of European countries, the current immigration system gives more preference to education and skill level. Nevertheless, inequalities persist for different nationalities.

Cubans who have families in the United States are able to obtain visas and immigrate to the U.S., while Haitians with families here have remained in limbo.

An estimated 110,000 Haitians who have family reunification visas that were approved by the Department of Homeland Security have remained on wait lists for as long as 12 years.

Dorcena Forry said she was hopeful the Obama administration would help expedite the Haitian family reunification program.

Many Liberians who were stranded in the U.S. when their nation became engulfed in a bloody civil war depend on the yearly renewal of their Deferred Enforcement Departure ruling, which allows them to work in the U.S.

“It’s just a temporary work permit,” says Torli Krua, founder of the Universal Human Rights International nonprofit that advocates on behalf of West African immigrants. “You work, you pay taxes. You live here.”

But those Liberians, many of whom have been in the U.S. since the early 1990s, have no legal grounds to apply for citizenship and live with the understanding that they could be deported if the Deferred Enforcement Departure ruling is not renewed.

“The ideal would be something that gives people permits to work and a path to citizenship,” Krua said. “There are people who have lived here for most of their lives.”

And in 2012 children who came to the United States before 2007 and grew up here without documentation were granted temporary status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Teodoro took advantage of.

But most of her family members were deported, and will not likely benefit from any program advanced by Obama or anyone else in the federal government.

“Deported people are the last thing on anyone’s mind,” Teodoro said. “I know when I’m fighting for immigration reform it won’t benefit me directly.”