Experts say action by Obama could impact as many as 5 million
By Lomi Kriel
Updated: November 20, 2014 1:33pm
For the past seven months, Maria Espinoza and her family have been in hiding, changing their address, listing their bills under the names of friends and relatives.
After her husband was ordered deported in April, the Conroe family felt they had no choice. With two U.S. citizen children and a 9-month-old grandchild, Guillermo Moreno couldn’t fathom returning to Monterrey, Mexico, a city and country he hadn’t been to in nearly two decades.
He quit his truck-driving job to avoid being stopped on the roads, and Espinoza, 47, turned their primary breadwinner, began cleaning houses. But what if she, too, was ordered deported? Espinoza liked to say she saw only two solutions: “We’re putting ourselves in the hands of God and Obama.”
Now she hopes President Barack Obama’s planned announcement on immigration reform Thursday will indeed restore their lives like she’d prayed for so often.
As parents of American children who’ve lived in the Houston area for nearly two decades, they’re among the most likely of all 11.7 million immigrants illegally in the U.S. to benefit from an executive action.
Among the changes Obama is expected to announce is a reprieve from deportation and a temporary work permit for parents of U.S. citizens and green-card holders. He also could expand his 2012 program of work permits to certain young adults here illegally. In all, experts say it’s likely to impact as many as 5 million immigrants.
Length of stay critical
Texas has the greatest number of people living here illegally, about 1.5 million, after California, according to an analysis of census data released Wednesday by the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, D.C. More than half of all immigrants illegally in Texas have been here for at least 10 years, making it one of the states with the longest-residing immigrant populations. Length of stay is critical because Obama will favor immigrants who, like Espinoza, have put down roots. Of those, he is certain to grant status to the parents of American-born children, or about 533,000 Texans, according to the analysis.
“In states like Texas where there are long established populations of unauthorized immigrants it could be very significant,” said Doris Meissner, director of U.S. immigration policy at the institute and a former commissioner of the then-U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “For that proportion of people to now be eligible for work permits, that’s a very big deal.”
Obama is expected to outline more details of exactly which immigrants will qualify Thursday. But Alberto P. Cardenas Jr., a Houston immigration attorney with Vinson & Elkins and counsel to former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said senior White House staff noted on a conference call Wednesday they expect it to benefit an estimated 130,000 immigrants in Houston, with as many as 500,000 qualifying across the state.
Cardenas said it would not allow for a path to citizenship nor qualify immigrants for welfare, student financial aid or government-funded health care.
“This is not that radical,” said Charles Foster, chairman of Houston’s Foster LLP, one of the nation’s largest immigration firms. “It’s a temporary status. No future president has to extend it.”
Foster said two of the last three Republican presidents – Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – also extended legal status to about 1.5 million family members who weren’t covered by the last major overhaul of immigration law in 1986.
Still, Foster said, “in terms of pure numbers it’s the biggest single act that impacts more foreign nationals than anything since 1965,” when Congress abolished the national quota system. “There’s nothing else that compares to this for more than half a century, and it’s the right thing to do. For the most part these people have been here for decades, and they are an integral part of our economy.”
But Republicans and groups who favor limited migration called it a flagrant overstep of Obama’s authority that would likely “poison the well” for any permanent reform.
“Certainly scale and magnitude does come into this,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less migration. “Previous presidents acting outside the limits of their presidential authority doesn’t justify the current president doing it, especially not on such a large scale.”
But Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University, said the U.S. Supreme Court agreed two years ago the president does have broad discretion, adding, “On a legal basis, he’s on sound ground.”
Chance for better life
What’s certain is that any type of legal status improves quality-of-life standards for immigrants who qualify. At present, those families living in fear of deportation struggle to make ends meet.
A truck driver for decades, Espinoza’s husband was earning about $1,000 a week, enabling her to stay home with their children. But in 2008 he was arrested for drunken driving. The charge was dropped for lack of evidence, but he was flagged in jail for being here illegally. A 1998 drunken driving conviction, a misdemeanor for which he served probation, qualified him as a priority for deportation.
“Since that day everything about our lives has changed,” Espinoza said.
Now her husband, terrified of being on the road, helps a friend fix cars. But it pays less than half of what he earned before. Though she began working, too, they lost the mobile home they bought because they could no longer make the monthly payments. Their youngest son, 14-year-old Jose, struggled at school because of the anxiety.
“There’s just an uncertainty we live in all the time,” Espinoza said.
It instilled a sense of urgency. Her 19-year-old daughter Glenda, who was 3 when her parents brought her here, hastened to apply for Obama’s deferred action program so she’d be legal too. Though she dreamed of going to college and finding a career as a medical assistant, she now must help shoulder the family bills and instead works at a paint supply store.
“Without my dad’s job, my mom needs more help,” she said.
If her father is deported, she doesn’t know what her family would do. She can’t even picture his life there.
“I don’t even remember Mexico,” she said. “It sounds really scary.”
Moreno, meanwhile, said he can’t imagine leaving his grandson, born to his 17-year-old daughter Wendy just before he was ordered deported.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that he could qualify for relief under Obama’s reforms, said Foster, the immigration attorney. That he’s already in the deportation pipeline makes it difficult.
But even just offering Espinoza a legal status would be a drastic improvement.
“I could get a better job,” she said. “And I could have my license and drive without fear.”