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What's next for immigration reform?

Published: Saturday, July 5 2014 5:45 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, speaks about immigration reform, Monday, June 30, 2014, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some community leaders say it's high time that President Barack Obama called out the House of Representatives for its inaction on immigration reform.

Others blame Obama and say he may be overreaching his executive powers when he says he will do all he is authorized to do to fix the nation's immigration system on his own.

All agree, however, that the proper venue for comprehensive immigration reform is Congress.

After the Senate's passage of a comprehensive reform bill a year ago, the issue has stalled in the House. The likelihood that the House will take up the issue before the November election is slim.

That's fueling frustration nationwide, said Jason Mathis, executive director of Salt Lake City's Downtown Alliance.

"Millions of people across the county share President Obama's frustration with Congress's inability to do their job. Certainly that's true of Utah's business community, where we have been begging literally for years for Congress to fix what everyone agrees is a broken system," he said.

Obama's announcement this week was his strongest to date taking on the House for its failure to act, he said.

"My only condemnation of President Obama is, why haven't you been doing everything you can to improve the situation since you were elected in 2008?" Mathis said.

House Republicans say the issue is trust.

“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in February. He has not budged from that position and takes issue with Obama's willingness to issue executive orders to enact changes.

The Republican leadership in the House also differs from the Senate in approach, rejecting “a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand” in favor of a “step-by-step, common sense approach that starts with securing our country’s borders, enforcing our laws and implementing robust enforcement measures," states the Standards for Immigration Reform that Republicans in the House released at the beginning of the year.

Both sides are at an impasse and the fallout is being felt at the border and across the country.

Deferred Action

Alyssa Williams, immigration attorney for Catholic Community Services of Utah, said some of Obama's previous initiatives achieved through executive orders have made a difference for certain people seeking to normalize their status or at least put deportation actions on hold.

People are in the process of applying for renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Deferred action does not provide lawful status. It is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal actions against a person for a two-year period.

Under DACA, people who came to the United States as children and meet other guidelines may request consideration under the initiative. Those who obtain approval are also eligible to work.

While hundreds of thousands of people applied for the consideration the first few months it was offered, the applicant pool has shrunk considerably during the past year.

Some people can't afford the application fee, Williams said. Others have experienced difficulty putting together the required documentation.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics for the first quarter of the federal fiscal year (Oct. 1-Dec. 31), more than 7,300 people in Utah have applied for DACA since 2012. More than 6,300 were approved.

While Obama gave no indication how he might use executive power to make other administrative changes in the immigration system, he may have authority to extend deferred action to parents unauthorized to be in the United States whose children have been approved for DACA. Another option may be extend DACA to siblings of youths previously granted the approval, she said.

Another option, Williams said, could be granting temporary protected status to the recent surge of Central American immigrants — most of them children — crossing the U.S. border.

"It's getting close to the president maxing out limits on his authority what he can do," she said.

Enforcement changes

While immigration reform has not been achieved during Obama's presidency, the administration has changed its enforcement practices, says Mark Alvarez, a Spanish language radio talk show host and attorney.

Workplace raids have been replaced with audits of employees' paperwork. If the audits determine employees are not authorized in the United States, their employers must fire them.

In 2011, then-federal prosecutors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were instructed by then-ICE director John Morton to focus on deporting dangerous criminals and, when appropriate, close cases of people who have no criminal records, have jobs, or are attending school and don’t pose a threat to society.

Alvarez, who has largely supported Obama's action in the absence of Congress acting on immigration reform, said he is ordinarily uncomfortable ceding more power to the executive branch "because it quibbles with our checks and balances. With the crisis we have in immigration, I think there's justification for the use of that executive power."

Mathis said he believes Utah's congressional delegation is committed to reforming the nation's immigration system but they are "constrained by a larger national political calculation."

Both parties have used immigration reform as a wedge issue to win primary elections or to drum up support from their respective bases, Mathis said

"The cynical calculations seem purely bent on craven political gain and not on doing the right thing for the American people and the American economy," he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, however, should be singled out for praise "because he actually worked with his colleagues to try and find a solution in the Senate," Mathis said.

Impact on immigrants

Alvarez said Obama's statement, "If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours," has stirred a lot of speculation among pundits and confusion for people who are not authorized to be in the United States.

Whatever Obama does, it won't happen overnight, he said. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals took a few months to implement, and applicants then had to wait to learn whether they had been approved.

The Morton memo encouraged a kinder approach to enforcement but its application can vary depending on which officer responds to a call or what prosecutor draws the case.

"As a lawyer I worry about the unevenness of how these cases are handled. Why does one person get prosecutorial discretion and another does not?" Alvarez said.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will respond to Obama's announcement, particularly with midterm elections just four months away.

"One could logically think that maybe this is the last chit being played in this game. I hope that's true," Alvarez said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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