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5 immigration stories to watch in 2013 and beyond

In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that babies born to parents of color now made up the majority of children born in the United States. Many are second-generation children of immigrants.
In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that babies born to parents of color now made up the majority of children born in the United States. Many are second-generation children of immigrants.
Photo by Victoria Bernal/Flickr (Creative Commons)

This is one in a series of year-end stories that look back at the most memorable pieces KPCC reporters worked on in 2012 and look ahead at a key issue that will be the focus of coverage in the coming year.

Last year delivered some milestones in U.S. immigration history - including a historic demographic shift, fueled by immigration, as the children of nonwhite parents became the majority of babies born in this country.

Also for the first time, more than 100,000 young people who arrived in the United States as minors are living out of the shadows after obtaining temporary legal status through deferred action, a new program that lets young undocumented immigrants who qualify live and work legally in the U.S.

And in late June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Arizona v. United States, upholding the most contested provision of Arizona's trendsetting SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law. But the issue of states' rights in setting their own immigration policies remains in flux as new controversies arise.

In the past, Multi-American has looked back at the top immigration stories of the previous year. This year we're doing things differently, looking ahead to the stories we expect to hear about most this year, and in some cases, far beyond. Here are a few.

1) Comprehensive immigration reform: Will it happen this time?

Back in 2006, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters rallied in the streets of major U.S. cities, the promise of a comprehensive immigration reform package seemed like real possibility. 

It didn't happen. As that year's momentum waned, activists regrouped around smaller proposals like the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that proposed legal status for undocumented college students or military recruits.

But in the months since the November election, the idea of comprehensive reform is back on the table. Some Republican leaders have indicated they'll support bipartisan immigration reform after GOP candidate Mitt Romney, campaigning on a hard immigration line, lost the election while Latinos and other voters of color overwhelmingly supportedPresident Barack Obama. 

For his part, Obama has said in recent interviews that immigration reform is a priority for his second term, an issue he plans to tackle in the wake of the "fiscal cliff" tax deal. A White House official has hinted to journalists that a push for immigration reform from the Obama administration could happen this month. 

How far will it go this time? That depends. While some GOP leaders have signaled support for immigration reform, acknowledging that their party must appeal to a growing nonwhite electorate or face problems in future national elections, others have indicated their preference for the harder anti-illegal immigration line their consituents embrace.  

Some Republican lawmakers are split over what kind of immigration reform to embrace. All of that will affect the degree of bipartisan support if the Obama administration pushes a comprehensive package. If nothing else, it'll be an interesting process.

2) A changing U.S. population - and a changing electorate

In the spring of 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that for the first time in history, the majority of babies born in the United States were born to parents of color. The bureau recently projected that by 2043, the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation. 

These shifts have been afoot for a long time, but 2012 saw them quantified. The November election provided a glimpse at the ways they have begun to play out in the electorate.

The role of voters of color, many of them immigrants and children of immigrants, in the presidential election this year was difficult to ignore. Record numbers of black, Latino and Asian American voters turned out this year, and in each group the majority cast votes to reelect President Obama.

Immigration had a pivotal effect on the election in other ways. Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign ran into trouble early on with Latino voters when he took a hard stance on immigration. In the larger sense, the nation's changing demographics helped Obama win. 

There are growing numbers of Latino and Asian American voters, overwhelming majorities of which (more than 70 percent of each group, exit polls say) voted for Obama. This occurred as the non-Latino white voter demographic, among which Romney did better, has been shrinking.

The shifting U.S. population promises to have a dramatic effect on much more than the way Americans vote. Even as illegal immigration has dipped and more would-be immigrants from Mexico choose to stay home, the nation's Latino population has continued to grow as more second-generation children are born to immigrants in the U.S. So has the Asian American population, whose rate of growth eclipsed that of Latinos this year.

This story will play out for years to come, politically and otherwise.

3) The battle over states' rights and immigration policy

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on Arizona v. United States. While it struck down three contested provisions of SB 1070, the state's 2010 anti-illegal immigration law, the court upheld the hotly debated one that allows local police to check for immigration status if they suspect someone is illegally in this country.

The ruling has affected legal proceedings in other states that had followed Arizona's lead in enacting their own immigration laws, namely Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana. Court injuctions preventing police from checking for immigration status in some of these states have been lifted, while other provisions of these state immigration laws remain in legal limbo.

SB 1070 still faces challenges in court; one addresses a provision involving harboring. And the Supreme Court justices made clear that while they didn't believe the "reasonable suspicion" provision conflicted with federal law as written, there could still be conflicts in practice that allow for further challenges.

Meanwhile, another aspect of the states' rights dilemma has been developing for some time, this one over Secure Communities. Initiated in 2008, the federal immigration enforcement program allows the fingerprints of people booked into local law enforcement facilities to be shared with Homeland Security.

By the summer of 2011, officials in several states and jurisdictions around the country had voiced concerns about how such a federal-local partnership might undermine trust among immigrants and possibly impede policing. That August, after several states and local leaders had attempted to withdraw from the program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton rescinded the state contracts that initially had allowed Secure Communities to operate, essentially forcing states' participation.

Since then, some state and local leaders have tried to craft alternatives for limiting participation. In California, a few versions of a bill known as the TRUST Act, which would limit which suspects local cops can hold for deportation to serious offenders, have made their way around the statehouse. Last month, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a bulletin to law enforcement in the state to advise them they are not legally bound to comply with ICE requests to hold immigrants for deportation.

Harris opined that such requests infringe on state sovereignty. Since then, some law enforcement agencies have revised their policies.

In late December, ICE issued its own new guidelines on immigration detainers, as these holds are known. While the guidelines list qualifying offenses, they are still broad: One clause states that law enforcement may issue detainers for individuals simply if agents "have reason to believe the individual is an alien subject to removal from the United States."

It's too soon to know how much of an effect the new guidelines will have on the Secure Communities standoff. The federal government has yet to challenge lawmakers over resistance to Secure Communities, as it did states that crafted SB 1070-style crackdowns. But it's a story that's still developing, and it will be one to watch.

4) The DACA generation

In June, President Obama introduced a plan to grant temporary status to young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors - the same young people who would have qualified for the DREAM Act.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program began in August, when it accepted the first applications. Those who try must clear a high bar: In order to qualify, young people must have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, have a relatively clean record, be able to prove they have lived in the country five consecutive years, and have been no older than 30 as of last June 15.

Those who are approved - there have been roughly 103,000 so far - get a two-year reprieve from deportation that they may renew, along with a work permit. They may also apply for driver's licenses in some states, like California, although other states have prohibited it.

Applications poured in at first and peaked in September. At first, experts estimated that as many as 1.7 million young people could qualify. Since the early peak, the rate of applications has continued to slow; since August, fewer than 400,000 applications have come in.

There are various theories as to why. Some immigrant advocates and service providers think the $465 application fee, along with related legal costs, has deterred many; others believe that while an early wave of younger applicants had an easier time applying, older people near the cutoff age who have worked in the shadows for years are having a tougher coming up with the required documentation to prove their length of stay.

Others still believe that those who were going to apply have already done so, and that the rest are either too afraid to stick their necks out or are holding off for a legislative solution.

Deferred action won't have nearly the same impact as the 1986 amnesty that permanently transformed the lives of nearly 3 million people who obtained legal status and those of their families. But the program has affected young people approved for deferred action, opening doors for them that their U.S.-born peers don't often think of. They may now apply for and work in jobs beyond the menial ones previously available to them. For those with college degrees, they can put their education to work. 

They will have to renew their permission to stay in the U.S. after two years, and there's no guarantee the program will last beyond the second Obama administration. This remains a concern for applicants and non-applicants. But for those who have made it through the process, even the short-term benefits are worthwhile: As one young college student who was approved recently put it, "I'm going to apply for the best job out there." 

How the lives of young people like these evolve in the years to come will definitely be a story to follow - as will, in contrast, the lives of their peers who didn't qualify or apply because of their age or other roadblocks.

5) Will deportations slow?

It's starting to sound like old news now, but in 2012, the Obama administration again surpassed the records it has set in the previous years removing immigrants from the United States. Federal immigration officials announced last week that more than 409,000 immigrants were removed from the country between Oct. 1, 2011 and last September 30, the period making up the 2012 fiscal year; there were 396,906 removals the previous year. 

It's noteworthy in part because the numbers continue to go up in spite of recent policy changes that at one time promised to make a dent in deportations. Some didn't quite pan out, like the reviews of deportation cases to determine whether these immigrants met the criteria for prosecutorial discretion, establishing them as low priorities for removal. The reviews of more than 300,000 cases began late last year, but it has been a slow process, and the number of deportation cases that have been administratively closed as a result has remained low.

Similarly, the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach toward certain young undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors and have a clean record, culminating in the deferred action program that launched in August. But so far, while the program has changed the lives of the 100,000-plus who have been approved, there had only been roughly 370,000 applications filed as of Dec. 13, far fewer than expected.

Meanwhile, enforcement policies that contribute to the high rate of deportations continue. While the Obama administration has begun phasing out the older, smaller scale federal-local partnership program known as 287(g), it has continued to expand Secure Communities across the country. That program allows the fingerprints of people booked at local law enforcement facilities to be shared with Homeland Security, and has been credited with boosting removals.

Will prosecutorial discretion reviews eventually make a dent? Will the Obama's administration's policies involving younger immigrants help to reduce the number of young people deported? Recent reports have suggested a slowdown in court-ordered deportation cases in the latter part of 2012, which would not necessarily be reflected in the FY 2012 removal numbers. But it's too soon to know whether this will translate into fewer deportations a year from now.

Just as last year was for immigration news, 2013 promises to be an interesting one.