As immigrants mark frustrating year for Obama's executive action, cities and states can take lead

With the federal government paralyzed on immigration reform, attention is shifting to what states and localities can do to substantially improve the lives of immigrants and their families. (Photo via Center for Popular Democracy.)

By Shena Elrington, Common Dreams

As debate over the immigration of Syrian refugees to the United States intensifies, immigrants already living in the United States quietly marked the passing of a frustrating year since Obama announced an executive action on immigration that has been stymied by legal action.

A year ago, President Obama delivered an executive action on immigration offering relief against the constant threat of deportation and hope to nearly five million immigrant families. These hopes have been dashed by politically motivated legal challenges that have stalled the orders.

The President's announcement, which came after years of dysfunction and ineptitude at the Congressional level, expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and created a new program, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), for undocumented parents of legal permanent residents and citizens.

While the orders fell short of comprehensive immigration reform and did not create the pathway to citizenship many immigrants and advocates had hoped for, they represented a significant policy shift that would allow millions of immigrants to finally emerge from the shadows.

Shortly after the President's announcement, several conservative governors and attorney generals filed a lawsuit in a Texas district court to prevent the executive orders from going into effect. Since then, the fate of DAPA and DACA and the lives of millions of immigrants and their families have been held in limbo.

Last month, a federal appeals court upheld a preliminary injunction preventing implementation of the programs. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. 

While much attention has been paid to the fight for immigration reform at the federal level — and rightly so — far less attention has been paid to efforts to create welcoming and inclusive communities for immigrants at the state and local level. The federal government has exclusive power to set immigration laws, but states and localities have considerable power to pass laws in other areas that can substantially change the lives of and opportunities available to immigrants and their families.

States and localities, through a legal doctrine known as home-rule, have broad power to pass sweeping legislation in areas that impact the public welfare — so long as it does not intrude on the powers reserved for the federal government or states. This is the very same power that states in the South and elsewhere have used to pursue anti-immigrant legislation in recent years.

However, other states and localities, confronted with the reality of a Congress that is incapable of fixing our broken immigration system, have proactively pursued a range of policies that redefine who belongs and recognize the important contributions of immigrants. These policies range from creating municipal identification programs to policies expanding health coverage options to people left out of health reform to policies that limit the collaboration between federal immigration officials and local law enforcement.

Importantly, many of these policies benefit not only immigrants but also other groups that persistently face barriers that impede their access to a range of resources, including people of color, the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, the elderly, and young people.

The need for states and localities to actively pursue these types of policies has never been more pressing. The presidential election is right around the corner and we are faced with candidates like Donald Trump who engage in dangerous hate-mongering, referencing shameful programs like "Operation Wetback," a mass deportation program instituted by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 that forcibly removed 2 million Mexican immigrants (including Mexican-Americans) from their homes with deadly consequences, as a legitimate and viable response to the presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, more than half of the country's governors have pledged to close their borders to Syrian refugees fleeing war and persecution despite the fact lacking the legal authority to do so.

Cities and states can and should do more, tapping into the power they have to make progressive local reforms that foster inclusive communities and create more robust and representative democracies. Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a national network that works with community-based organizations to promote a pro-immigrant, pro-worker, racial justice agenda, is committed to helping cities and states harness this power.

Last month, CPD released a toolkit, Building Identity: A Toolkit for Designing and Implementing a Successful Municipal ID Program, to help advocates, elected officials, and community members pass municipal ID programs in their cities and counties. Our work thus far has reached only the tip of the iceberg of what is possible; states and cities can do much more.

Even as we reflect on the promise of Obama's executive action, we should also call on cities and states to pursue progressive reforms that will significantly impact immigrants, revolutionize how we define who belongs, and validate the real contributions immigrants have and continue to make to this nation.

(Shena Elrington is the director of Immigrant Rights & Racial Justice at Center for Popular Democracy.)