The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of ups and downs in the fight for immigrant rights across the country. On February 16th, a Texas federal judge ordered a temporary injunction halting President Obama’s newest executive action to expand protection from deportation to broader groups of undocumented immigrants. The ruling is the latest in a suit filed by 26 states, including Texas, alleging that the President’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and his new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs will harm the states by not enforcing immigration laws and raising state expenditures by qualifying undocumented immigrants for limited benefits. Many legal experts and advocates believe the law will ultimately weigh in the President’s favor. The President’s case is helped by a history of past Presidents providing similar deportation relief and even granting legal status to undocumented immigrants, and by the sheer necessity of prosecutorial discretion in a system that only has the resources to annually deport around 400,000 of its 11.3 million undocumented immigrants. However, the states have landed their lawsuit in front of conservative-appointed Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who has criticized President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security in prior opinions for their “dangerous course of action” in choosing “not to enforce the United States’ border security laws.” Judge Hanen’s order to suspend the President’s executive action came two days before the programs were scheduled to begin accepting applications. Instead, February 18th was met with rallies and news conferences to speak out against the “judicial vigilantism” of the injunction and to affirm that this was just “a bump in the road” for the President’s programs. On February 20th, the administration announced its plans to seek an emergency ruling to block the injunction, asserting its desire to resolve the legal questions surrounding the executive action programs as quickly as possible. However, many advocates warn that the recent decision may have cooled immigrant communities’ willingness to sign up for the new programs, instead encouraging a new fear of the temporary relief offered by programs such as DACA and DAPA.
However, in the same week that the Obama administration was fending off attacks on its plans to expand protection from deportation to over 5 million undocumented immigrants, it was also defending its policy of detaining families stopped at the border. On February 16th, the same day that Judge Hanen ordered a halt to the expanded DACA and DAPA, a federal judge for the District of Columbia ordered the administration to stop indiscriminately detaining women and children caught illegally entering the country without inspection. The ruling comes in a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the immigration clinic at the University of Texas law school seeking to stop the use of detention as a general deterrent for future illegal entrants. They argue, and Judge James E. Boasberg agreed, that detention is instead meant to be an individualized determination to separate entrants that are deemed to be a risk to the public safety from the general population as their cases move through immigration courts.
After a week of conflicting decisions and emotions, Mexican-born director Alejandro G. Iñárritu put words to many advocates’ frustration in his Oscars acceptance speech by calling for reform that would treat “the latest generation of immigrants in this country” with “the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before [them] and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
Considered together, these cases show the long road still ahead in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. While DACA and DAPA offer a promising first step to grant relief to millions of undocumented immigrants who have claimed the United States as their home, it still leaves many without relief by drawing “an arbitrary line between criminalized felons and spared families” and leaving many LGBTQ immigrants with no relief under the “‘normal’ definition of families.” Furthermore, the President’s plan lacks a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, leaving them without a legal voice to truly shape the policies that affect their lives. In the meantime, deportations and detentions of women and children at the border threaten to disrupt the families and lives of millions of immigrants and citizens alike. As Iñárritu said, what this country “deserves” is comprehensive immigration reform that makes sense and preserves equal rights for all.