Skip to Content

‘Sweeping impact’ of immigration overhaul

13 Nov

‘Sweeping impact’ of immigration overhaul

By Lomi Kriel and David McCumber

November 13, 2014

President Barack Obama’s expected overhaul of the nation’s immigration system would have a sweeping impact on Houston, home to about one quarter of all immigrants illegally in Texas, immigrant experts and advocates said Thursday.

About 11.7 million immigrants live in the U.S. illegally, according to the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project. Of those, the Department of Homeland Security has estimated about 1.7 million reside in Texas, second only to California. Experts say about 400,000 are in the Houston region.

It’s still unclear exactly what actions Obama, who returns from Asia on Sunday, could take, but it seems certain he’ll do so before the end of the year and even as soon as next week. For the past six months, administration officials have consulted with Latino advocates and various business and industry groups to draft what such changes should entail.

Experts say it’s likely he’ll grant temporary work authorization to the parents of U.S. citizens provided they meet certain requirements such as passing criminal background checks. It would be an extrapolation of what was until now Obama’s signature 2012 immigration initiative allowing certain young adults to stay in the country for two years and work legally. That could impact as many as 3.3 million immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration research organization in Washington D.C. Obama could also expand which youth qualify for deferred action and extend protections to their parents, affecting more than 1 million additional immigrants. Among other changes, it’s likely he would also make it easier for more highly skilled workers and their families to immigrate here.

Alberto P. Cardenas Jr., a Houston immigration attorney with Vinson & Elkins and counsel to former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said based on estimates, roughly about a third of all immigrants living illegally in Houston, or about 130,000, could stand to benefit. Beyond that, he said any reform would be a boon for Houston’s business industry, though noted it would be only a temporary solution until Congress makes it permanent.

“It would essentially bring forward a process to address the undocumented population so when Congress does act they can see what the numbers actually are rather than the blind estimates we currently have,” he said.

Checks and balances

Cardenas has met with senior White House officials on the issue throughout the summer, most recently on Oct. 2, where he represented key construction and service industry interests in the Houston region. He said his clients want to ensure immigrants who are given new work permits are required to work for legitimate companies that follow the law and pay taxes.

Those industries are “booming in this city,” he said. “But many find themselves with a current shortage of workers or the available work force may not have all the appropriate documentation. What this would afford them the opportunity to do is have a work force that is known and legal so going forward they can comply with the law.”

Michael Olivas, an immigration law professor at the University of Houston, cited Texas’ long border with Mexico and its huge Mexican-American population, as well as the large number of youth who qualified for deferred action. After California, Texas had the greatest number of youth receive the work permit, with roughly 26,000 qualifying for it in the Houston metropolitan area.

“This is more likely to help Texas than any other place except for Southern California,” Olivas said.

But it’s uncertain what fate awaits changes Obama decides to enact. Republicans in Congress have vowed to fight it, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Thursday through a spokeswoman he would pursue “all procedural means available” to prevent “this lawless executive amnesty.”

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, said Obama has “neither the Constitutional authority nor the support of the American public to grant amnesty.” Some Republicans said it could jeopardize the future of any permanent immigration reform, with Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, warning if Obama “ignores the checks and balances set by the Constitution, he’ll poison the well on this issue.”

Obama should delay action on the issue until Congress can build a “bipartisan consensus on repairing our broken immigration system,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. He added, “I can’t think of anything more discouraging that the president of the United States could do.”

Sweeping action

But Charles Foster, chair of Foster LLP in Houston, one of the nation’s largest immigration firms, said Obama’s action is not unprecedented, noting former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took sweeping action, granting hundreds of thousand of immigrants legal residency.

Still, Foster, who advised the younger Bush’s campaign on immigration, said “the way this has been described, it’s safe to say this action by the president will provide more legal options and benefits for a larger number of foreign nationals than any prior action or legislation since 1965,” when the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the national quota system.

Mirla Lopez, a University of Texas at Austin graduate who came here from Mexico when she was 6, said she hopes reform happens soon and sticks. The political science major cleaned houses for years because she didn’t have a work permit until she was approved in August under deferred action. She has two U.S. citizen siblings but her mother is here illegally.

“It would make a big difference,” said Lopez, who is 30. “She could travel, she could maybe get a better job, if anything she would feel more safe. She wouldn’t be afraid of every cop.”