In many ways, fear is a deeply unavoidable theme in the immigration debate.
For many undocumented immigrants assimilation into American life involves a constant sense of fear that the most banal, everyday task – driving to work or buying groceries – could be up-ended by a minor police stop that will ultimately lead to deportation. One of the most invaluable aspects of President Obama’s latest executive actions were that they helped diffuse some of that everyday trepidation. But in the three weeks since the president unveiled his measures to provide deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants, a sense of fear is still palpable.
After all, the measures are merely a stopgap that could unravel with the stroke of a pen once the next president takes over the Oval Office. And for many undocumented immigrants who currently live in the U.S., coming out of the shadows to register their identities with the same government agency that deports hundreds of thousands of people every year calls on a great amount of trust that their choice to come forward won’t be turned against them.
“I think many of the communities [are] afraid,” one woman said to President Obama this week during a town hall meeting in Nashville, Tenn. “Are they going to be first in line to deportation because they gave their information?”
It’s a familiar refrain, echoing similar concerns raised more than two years ago when Obama first offered relief to DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children. As the president often points out, the net-plus has turned out in the immigrant community’s favor – more than 580,000 DREAMers who have received benefits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (known as DACA) – allowing them to stay in the U.S., go to school, work and contribute to the nation’s well-being as taxpayers.
“When deferred action was announced in 2012, there were many people who told me to not apply because I would be put on a list to be deported even faster,” 26-year-old DREAMer Astrid Silva said in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. “But, it’s been two years and what deferred action did was change my life. I’ve been able to get a job, to save up enough money that I can finish my education now. I’ve been able to learn how to drive – something I’ve never been able to do in my life before. I am now able to drive to school.”
President Obama addressed the issue during an interview with MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart Tuesday, reiterating that the federal government didn’t have the resources nor the will to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the U.S.
“We’re gonna deport criminals. We’re gonna deport felons. We’re gonna prioritize our resources,” Obama said. “And at the border, if people come here illegally, then we are still going to remove them.”
Republicans – both at the state and federal level – have done little to hide their own fears that the president’s actions amount to little more than “executive amnesty” in ushering in millions to remain in the United States aboveboard. Swift opposition from the right threatens to shut down the program even before it even starts up.
As many as 19 states have already filed a lawsuit against the federal government over Obama’s actions. Many of those states that have signed onto the suit – nearly all led by Republican governors – are in regions where large swaths of immigrants will eventually be coming forward with applications for the president’s executive actions.
Meanwhile in Congress, Republicans have tried everything from threatening a government shutdown, lawsuits and even impeachment over the president’s executive measures. The House last week made it as far passing a symbolic bill to bar the implementation of the executive action, and even roll back DACA, returning DREAMers in fear of deportation once again. This move follows a summer of fear-mongering that the flood of unaccompanied minors caught at the border were bringing along with them fatal diseases and terrorist infiltrators.
During the Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday, Republican senators crowed over the perceived lawlessness of the president’s actions and warned of dire implications should Obama’s executive actions move forward.
“I worry if we let the president get away with this, then what will come next. The American people are outraged by the president’s actions, and rightly so,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and ranking member of the committee, said. “This administration has also failed to enforce the laws in the interior. The Department of Homeland Security has released hundreds of alleged murderers, kidnappers, rapists and domestic abusers from its custody.”
Many of these fears – on both sides – are nothing new. Instead, they have been compounded each year that the fight comprehensive immigration reform has made a comeback in Congress, only to ultimately fail. President Obama hinted Tuesday that he hoped the swelling outrage from lawmakers over his executive actions would once again jumpstart legislative reform. But if fear remains a dark cloud hovering over comprehensive immigration reform, one thing is clear: undocumented immigrants won’t be the only ones who need to come out of the shadows.