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For immigrants' rights activists, battle continues

New deportation policy is a victory but could energize foes even as many goals remain unmet.

June 17, 2012|Teresa Watanabe and Esmeralda Bermudez
  • Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said, “It’s great to know our hard work is paying off. But there is so much more to do.”
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

For Angelica Salas, it was a long time coming.

The Obama administration's announcement that it would stop deporting illegal immigrants who were brought here as children was the culmination of more than a decade of persistent political organizing by Salas and her fellow immigrant rights advocates.

But Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, barely had time to celebrate what many activists consider their most significant victory since amnesty was offered to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in 1986.

There is work to be done to build political power through get-out-the-vote campaigns: To forge strategies around the U.S. Supreme Court's imminent decision on Arizona's restrictive immigration law; to slow down the Obama administration's record level of deportations; and, in California, to renew the push to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses. "We organized. We pushed really really hard," Salas said. "It's great to know our hard work is paying off. But there is so much more to do."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 19, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Immigration: In the June 16 Section A, two articles about an immigration policy change by the Obama administration said immigrants who arrived before age 16 and who are now under age 30 could apply for a two-year stay on deportation proceedings. People may apply until their 31st birthday. The mistake was repeated in a follow-up article in the June 17 Section A.

Despite the immigrant rights movement's most enduring disappointment -- the failure to win an immigration system overhaul that would include legalization for most illegal immigrants -- the movement is brimming with energy and crafting countermoves to hawkish policies that have proliferated in the last two years. And the focus on relief for undocumented students has expanded the movement's organizing ranks with young people armed with energy, social media skills and compelling stories, analysts say.

"In the last couple of years, the movement has been much more led by the activism of young adults," said Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine political scientist.

DeSipio cautioned, however, that activists face a daunting obstacle to enduring national gains: The lack of what he called a "viable strategy" to shift the dynamics of the House of Representatives by electing a Democratic majority or more Republicans open to their agenda. Failing that, he said, the activists will have to continue relying on administrative action that could be overturned with a new president.

Activists will also face an energized opposition by those who believe Obama's decision last week rewards those who broke the law.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said he and his allies plan to launch a "peaceful political revolt" involving protests, marches, public education, media interviews and work with like-minded legislators to defeat Obama. "We need to throw this dictator out of office and others who try to make policy through executive decree rather than the processes of the republic," Gheen said.

Obama's decision to stop deporting young immigrants, advocates say, capped a decade of work they say tactically evolved with changing political circumstances. Under the new policy, illegal immigrants would be given a two-year renewable reprieve from deportations if they came here before age 16, lived continuously in the United States for five years, are students with a high school or general education degree or served in the military, have no criminal record and are younger than age 30. Successful applicants will be given a work permit -- and, most likely, a Social Security card that will also give them access to driver's licenses.

Advocates have been pushing for such relief since Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Los Angeles) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) first proposed it in 2001 with bipartisan support, Salas said. But the efforts sputtered as Republicans hardened their stance with legislation against illegal immigrants. This included a 2005 House of Representatives bill to criminalize undocumented immigrants and those who assist them -- legislation that sparked waves of national protest marches -- and the 2010 Arizona bill that made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to be in the state and requires police to check for proof of legal status.

Reading the political tea leaves in 2010, advocates made a fateful strategic decision: to shift from pushing legislation, seen as politically impossible to pass over congressional GOP opposition, to executive action that Obama could take on his own. "We all pivoted toward administrative relief when we saw that legislation was very unlikely," Salas said.

In June 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would focus deportation actions on individuals who pose a public safety threat and give relief to those who do not, including students and families.

But activists have been disappointed and angered by the results: Among nearly 300,000 deportation cases reviewed so far, only 1.5% have been closed. Overall, the Obama administration has ejected more than 1 million immigrants so far, including 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children during the first six months of 2011, according to a report by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.

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