How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A call to suspend deportations while Congress debates reform: How realistic is it?

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Guatemalan nationals are searched before boarding a deportation flight to Guatemala City, Guatemala at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, June 24, 2011. Some immigrant advocates, joined by Latino and labor groups, are calling on the White House to suspend deportation of immigrants who might qualify to legalize their status under a Senate immigration reform bill.

Immigrant advocates have been asking the Obama administration to suspend some deportations while the Senate debates immigration reform, this time joined by prominent Latino civil rights and labor groups. How realistic of a goal it is depends on who you ask.

This week, a coalition that included the AFL-CIO labor federation, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the youth activist group United We Dream and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, held a conference call to state their case to media. From the New York Times' story:

The groups, which generally support the Senate bill, said that thousands of immigrants who would most likely gain legal status under its terms were being expelled and separated from their families in the United States while Congress deliberates.

“It’s a simple matter of fairness and justice,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president of MALDEF. “It makes no sense to deport those who would be eligible for that relief.”

The idea wouldn't be to halt all deportations, only those cases involving unauthorized immigrants who meet the criteria for legalization as outlined in the Senate immigration reform bill, said Chris Newman, legal director of the L.A.-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network. This would mean candidates must have a relatively clean record and have lived in the United States prior to the end of 2011, among other requirements.

Newman suggests relief for these immigrants could be similar to deferred action, a program initiated last year that provides two years' worth of protection from deportation for young people who arrived in the U.S. before age 16.

The fact that the Obama administration implemented deferred action — after much campaigning from immigrant youth activists — is encouraging to those pushing for a hold on deportations, Newman says.

"We saw from the deferred action announcement that what the president did was not only good for immigrant students," says Newman, "it was good for the process of pushing immigration reform forward, and it was good for him politically. It was sort of a trifecta for him." 

But President Obama has held that he can't and won't halt deportations unless Congress acts. And it would be highly unlikely for the White House to change course now, says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine.

"My take is that the Obama administration is unlikely to change policy while Congress is debating the bill,"  DeSipio says. "The current policy is to target criminal aliens and folks with outstanding orders of deportation."

There is also already a policy known as prosecutorial discretion, DeSipio points out, which calls for the review of deportation cases involving people who don't have criminal records or who arrived in the U.S. as minors. But, DeSipio says, "I doubt they would extend this to all unauthorized immigrants who might be eligible for legalization."

What advocates are calling for does work, though, as a tactic for humanizing the reform debate, says Kevin Johnson, an immigration law scholar and dean of the UC Davis law school.

"It's an interesting political strategy," Johnson says. "A call to stop the deportations raises awareness of immigration reform and the possible benefits of its passage: stopping the deportations of real people. The activists are striving to bring the reform issues to life, with actually stopping the removals a secondary goal — which the activists would like, but do not expect."

For those who are deported, there's also a provision in the Senate bill that would allow some people removed for non-criminal reasons to apply to return, so long as they have immediate family ties in the U.S.  But there's a chance this could be eliminated as bill amendments are voted on.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to continue weighing amendments Thursday.

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