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Mayors to make Obama immigration order a reality

Mayors and senior officials from 25 cities met in New York to lay the groundwork for implementing President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Immigration celebrations outside White House
Bety Martinez, from Peru, celebrates outside the White House following President Obama's speech outlining his executive action on immigration on Nov. 20, 2014.

Mayors and senior officials from 25 cities across the country met Monday in New York to rally support and lay the groundwork for implementing President Obama’s executive actions to provide relief to millions of undocumented immigrants nationwide.

Brought together by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the summit connected city officials who represent some of the largest immigrant populations in the country in a coalition currently made up exclusively of Democratic lawmakers. Cities United for Immigration Action, formed earlier this month, builds on a larger effort from municipalities to push comprehensive immigration reform in the wake of congressional inaction.

"The president's action is a strong beginning and will affect millions," de Blasio said in a press conference from Gracie Mansion Monday. "It's also a gateway to something much greater: Comprehensive immigration reform."

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The summit marks the formal launch of what de Blasio has dubbed a "mayoral war room" designed as a forum for local leaders to swap tips on how to prepare for once the millions of immigrants who qualify for the president's actions are able to begin the application process, expected as soon as February. Leaders hope to kick off a social media campaign to spur action and awareness across the country. Also in February, elected officials are planning a "Mayoral Lobby Day" for city officials to ascend on Capitol Hill and lobby members of Congress who do not support comprehensive immigration reform.

"Five million people — that's absolutely extraordinary. We stand by the president for taking such bold action and I think the consensus of the room is that this is the beginning," de Blasio said. "The fact that we went from zero to 5 million with the stroke of a pen is a transcendent, historical moment for this country."

Congressional dithering on immigration reform is what prompted President Obama to take executive action last month, shielding as many as five million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the United States. Those who have U.S.-born children, have no criminal record and have lived in the country for more than five years will now be able to seek protection from threats of deportation.

City and federal officials face a daunting task of working with non-profit and advocacy groups to inform millions of immigrants that they may be eligible to receive the new benefits, and notify them of the types of paperwork needed throughout the application process. Implementing the action will require wide-scale coordination on the local and federal level as officials map out a plan to enact the most far-reaching executive measures on immigration seen yet.

The president’s initiative is modeled after a similar program from 2012 that protected young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and provided them with the paperwork allowing them to temporarily work legally and open bank accounts. That program, known as DACA -- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- has benefited more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants since it was first enacted. Now, implementation must be translated to absorb the millions who potentially qualify for the new actions.

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, senior White House advisor Valarie Jarrett, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jerry Abramson and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez also attended the day of closed-door meetings to walk the mayors and city officials through the nuts and bolts of the approaching program.

Aside from the logistical issues that officials implementing the new measures face is a growing opposition both at the state and federal levels from namely Republican lawmakers who say the president’s actions amount to executive overreach. As many as 18 states have already sued President Obama in saying that issuing the actions is outside of his authority.

The coalition of Democrats provides much-needed support behind the president’s actions ahead of the next legislative session. In the face of the growing opposition in red states, the president will be heading to the South in efforts to sell his measures to the public, speaking in Nashville, Tennessee, which has seen its immigrant community grow in recent years.

"The folks on the other side of this issue have been very loud and very forceful in voicing their disagreement with the president's order," Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta said. "We we think candidly that there needs to be somebody on the other side who is standing up for folks and having a substantive conversation about how we can actually move this along."

Meanwhile in Congress, House Republicans have already passed a bill in a symbolic gesture to block the measures from going into effect. The bill stands virtually no chance of becoming law with Democrats still in control of the Senate and the White House threatening to veto if the bill makes it to the president’s desk. But come January, when Republicans are slated to control all of Congress, opposition to the president's measures are expected to only ramp up, just as the administration readies to start accepting its first applications.

The Democratic mayors vowed to use their networks on the local level to reach out to fellow mayors -- including Republicans -- to grow the coalition and help rally support in ensuring that the launch of far-reaching immigration action won't meet the same technical snafus seen in the kick-off of the president's health care law.

“We’re going to take this opportunity up very seriously, very vigorously and very broadly," said San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee.