MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) – President Barack Obama outlined his plan for immigration reform Thursday night in a prime-time television address. But what does that mean for immigrants here in Minnesota?
Part of Obama’s plan is to take steps to “deal responsibly” with millions of undocumented immigrants who are already here, and make it faster and easier for them to stay here.
Michele Garnet-McKenzie with Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis said no one will be automatically granted citizenship without a proper application, but with an estimated 91,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota, she does expect a large increase in immigrants asking for help.
“We do anticipate that people will want to register for this status,” she said. “We saw that with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that people did say, ‘You know what? Let’s move forward and see where we go from here.’”
About one-third of the state’s undocumented immigrants were living with a child who has U.S. citizenship or permanent status, part of the criteria for granting temporary relief from potential deportation, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. About 65,000 had lived in the country at least five years, which is another eligibility benchmark. More than half were born in Mexico. Two-thirds were holding down jobs.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges released a statement following the president’s speech saying she’s looking forward to helping the immigrant community adjust to their new status.
The state’s role
Enforcement of immigration laws is the federal government’s responsibility, but state services often come into play.
Immigrants living in Minnesota without proper documentation don’t qualify for cash or food assistance in welfare programs, though some household members with legal status can get the benefit.
Unauthorized immigrants aren’t eligible for most subsidized state or federal health programs. Since 1997, Minnesota has provided some public health coverage to pregnant women who are in the state illegally. Any changes to state programs would require legislative approval, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The Department of Revenue was studying the Obama administration action and planning to consult with Internal Revenue Services about how the program would change the agency’s duties. Some immigrants now working in cash-only jobs could seek more-legitimate employment if their residency status is upgraded.
At the Department of Public Safety, decisions must be made about whether affected immigrants could obtain state driver’s licenses or ID cards. Spokesman Bruce Gordon said “it’s too early to know” what route officials will take.
Obama sets off on immigration sales mission
Obama and his allies, confronting a buildup of GOP criticism, are seeking to sell the president’s executive actions on immigration as good politics and good policy.
The effort is crucial to Obama as he tries to dampen Republican cries to undo the administrative measures and, at the same time, strives to win the trust of immigrants and get them to participate. Obama is starting with a rally Friday at the Las Vegas high school where he launched his 2013 drive for an overhaul of the immigration system.
The executive actions, which Obama laid out in a prime-time television address Thursday, are designed to make nearly 5 million immigrants illegally in the United States eligible for protection from deportation and for work permits. It would mainly cover parents of U.S. citizens and of legal residents as long as the parents have been in the U.S. for five years or more. But Obama’s actions also would change enforcement priorities by emphasizing the deportation of new illegal arrivals and criminals.
Obama’s decision to bypass Congress with his directives infuriated Republicans, who have accused him of vastly exceeding his authority. Obama, already prepared with a counter-argument, noted that the GOP-controlled House had failed to act on a bipartisan bill that passed in the Senate last year.
“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” Obama said in his national address.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama, in sidestepping Congress, had damaged his ability to get things done.
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left,” Boehner said in a statement following Obama’s speech.
Many Americans still support paths to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the U.S., but they don’t tend to support Obama acting on his own.
“I think he ought to wait till the new Congress comes in, give them a couple of months, drop the plan, say this is what we’re going to do if they don’t take action,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said.
White House officials believe Obama must respond forcefully to Republican criticism that he has exceeded his authority.
Obama also wants to make sure immigrants eligible for his program do enroll. Advocates fear that with only two years left in Obama’s presidency and with Republican threats to undo the executive actions, eligible immigrants won’t sign up.
Without enrollment by millions of immigrants seeking to obtain work permits, these advocates fear, Obama’s executive order would become an easy target for a new president with a different immigration agenda.