A recent course of events shows how the politics of Washington, D.C. can have a serious, direct impact on the work of local immigrant service providers.
This year, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation was ready to renew a grant to the West Michigan branch of Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), a national immigration ministry established by the United Methodist Church. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court this June reached a 4-4 tie in United States v. Texas, that grant was withdrawn.
The story goes back to June 2012, when President Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the immigration policy allowing certain undocumented immigrants to apply for a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation. To receive this relief, a person needed to complete a complex application process proving his or her eligibility under a long series of requirements, including an age cap, certain education stipulations, a lack of a criminal record, and more.
“It’s not a free ride,” said Kate Luckert Schmid, a program director for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “It’s verifying that they meet the requirements, and those are very stringent. Our position is about helping people access the privileges they are legally allowed to have and just need assistance to do so.”
For years, legal service providers like JFON have assisted — and continue to help — eligible immigrants through the DACA application process.
When the president announced an expansion to DACA in 2014 along with a new policy, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), service providers began ramping up for an influx of applicants. The expanded DACA would have removed the age cap entirely and extended the renewal period to three years.
Meanwhile, DAPA focused on family unity, offering temporarily relief to parents of U.S. citizens. Up to 10,000 people in Kent County alone might have been eligible for the expanded protections, according to Luckert Schmid.
“There was a lot of work and effort put into preparations — over two years of conference calls, coordinating with other agencies and making changes to our staff,” said Laura Rampersad, site director for JFON West Michigan.
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation last year awarded a grant to JFON as part of that preparation.
Then, just two days before the government was to begin accepting applications, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas imposed an injunction on the expanded programs on Feb. 16, 2015. The Texas-based federal court argued the executive actions were an overreach of presidential powers. Since then, it’s been a year-and-a-half battle as the Department of Justice slowly appealed the case up to the Supreme Court.
The Community Foundation awarded the initial grant to JFON anyway and prepared to renew it this year in hopes of a favorable SCOTUS decision. But with only eight justices left on the court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia — and as Senate Republicans continue to block President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the open seat — the vote was split, effectively resulting in a non-decision and leaving expanded-DACA and DAPA on hold indefinitely.
HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
JFON was among a group of area nonprofits to feel the effects of the split decision. The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center of Kalamazoo and the statewide Michigan United co-chaired a multi-ethnic, multi-services collaboration called Ready Michigan. The group intended to combine resources and strategies across immigrant service providers all over the state, including JFON, to effectively assist with expanded-DACA and DAPA applications the moment they were available.
As scammers often target undocumented immigrants, who may be relatively uninformed or vulnerable, Ready Michigan wanted a head start, according to Susan Reed, managing attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
“Legal service providers are very small and under-resourced,” Reed said. “Bigger or less scrupulous people might be able to get their ad into Spanish-language media faster than we can or get people to pay down payments by creating a sense of scarcity.”
Also, many Ready Michigan organizations are already fairly overwhelmed, so a sudden boom of eligibility presents a challenging, but welcome situation, Reed said.
The collaborative developed a workflow “maximizing the use of lay volunteers,” in which large teams of volunteers would help applicants get their documents in order, minimizing the amount of time spent with actual attorneys. They also charge significantly less in legal fees than private practitioners, potentially saving applicants thousands of dollars.
With the expanded programs on hold, the members of Ready Michigan have continued their work on the initial iteration of the DACA policy.
Despite the failure to launch the new programs, Reed believes the collaboration was well worth the effort. Not only did the organizations learn a great deal from each other, but the framework is still in place for Ready Michigan members to react to the reform that Reed believes is inevitable.
“We certainly believe that immigration reform is coming,” Reed said. “Whether it’s executive action or legislation, it’s just not tenable in a democracy to have this many people excluded from participation indefinitely. Some kind of immigration reform that will benefit a large number of people is coming sooner or later, and we’re just really committed to being ready.”
The timeline for that reform will likely depend heavily on who wins the upcoming presidential election, according to Diego Bonesatti, who serves as the legal services director for Michigan United. Since DACA and its expansions all came out of the executive office, the next president could easily repeal the entire policy, something Donald Trump has vowed to do immediately if elected. On the other hand, the next president could also nominate a Supreme Court justice who would officially sway the vote either way.
In the meantime, Michigan United is encouraging anyone who can do so to get out and vote, and not just for the presidential election.
“You also have Congress,” Bonesatti said. “In Michigan, neither of our senators are up this year, but there’s members of the House. At this point, it’s education and training, so that you get people spreading the word and you fortify these networks.”
‘THE LONG ARC OF HISTORY’
The nonprofits working in immigration reform, a highly-politicized issue, must deal with regular uncertainty. But for JFON’s Rampersad, initiatives like DAPA should be commonsense, bipartisan policies.
“If three-fourths of the family are citizens and they’re being hurt by the immigration law, why can’t we fix that law?” she said. “Our organization filed an amicus brief. It was the first we had ever done. That’s how passionate we felt about this.”
Reed of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center believes the opposition to immigration reform is clearly rooted in “patterns of xenophobia” and “protecting white supremacy.”
“It’s the only explanation, for me, when you look at the real consequences of the policy we have,” Reed said. “In terms of the long arc of history, I just can’t believe it’s gone on this long.”
As one small example of those consequences, Bonesatti noted many immigrants in southeast Detroit and the southwestern part of the state are buying homes on land contracts, and pridefully taking care of the properties. He called it “neighborhood investment” and believes that even more immigrants would be able to invest if not for the constant fear of deportation.
“They want to be able to keep their capital liquid and mobile until they know that they have something solid,” Bonesatti said. “I think there’s people who would be happy to buy homes, but they’re kind of on the balls of their feet because they’re not sure what’s coming next.”
Regardless, the members of Ready Michigan say they’re hoping to stay true to the organization’s name, waiting for the moment to act. Reed already sees the anti-immigration rhetoric dying down somewhat in the time after the presidential primaries, and she hopes the U.S. will learn from other countries’ mistakes.
“I think if you look at something like Brexit, you see that it’s those social and cultural concerns that really tend to drive people’s fears or resistance to a legalization program,” she said. “There just aren’t facts that uphold that it makes economic sense to remove 11 million people, even if it were possible.”