In a high school auditorium off of 11th and Highway 169 in East Tulsa, several dozen people listened intently as an attorney, speaking through a Spanish translator, outlined the U.S. immigration system. Once the speaker reached the subject of President Obama’s most recent immigration executive action, hands shot up across the room. The community had a lot of questions about the coming changes.
In November 2014, President Obama announced his Immigration Accountability Executive Action, altering the enforcement of current immigration law and granting federal legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.
“Deferred action changes someone’s federal status. Those people are no longer ‘in line’ for deportation,” according to Oklahoma Policy Institute policy analyst Kate Richey. “The federal authorities reserve the right to deport them at anytime, but they will not initiate deportation proceedings while deferred action is in effect.”
Deferred action recipients are granted three-year work permits and, in most states, including Oklahoma, can now obtain driver’s licenses.
President Obama had already granted deferred action to those who did not have legal status that came into the country as children in an executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. In his most recent immigration executive action, he granted deferred action to the parents and nuclear families of U.S. citizens and green card holders, in a program that is being referred to as the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA).
Life after DACA
While those newly eligible for deferred action cannot apply for work permits until May, DACA has been in effect for over two years.
Tulsan and immigrant advocate Ivan Godinez came from Veracruz, Mexico with his mother when he was 14, to join his father who had initially migrated so that he could earn money to send Ivan to college.
“Before (DACA) I worked in fast food and restaurants, the only places I could work outside of construction,” said Godinez. “After I received DACA, I was able to apply anywhere. I remember having a job interview everyday for a whole week. I applied to work at places I didn’t ever intend to work for just because I could apply.”
According to the Immigration Policy Center, Godinez is like the 61 percent of DACA recipients who obtained a new job as a result of their new documented status.
“First I got a job at Natural Grocers, until I applied for my current job at the Community Action Project as a translator. For the first time I felt like I had a job where my potential was put to good use,” said Godinez.
Godinez has also been able to get a driver’s license, his first bank account and his first credit card. He is able to rent a car and go out and travel without fear that a routine traffic stop could initiate deportation proceedings.
Godinez’s family had not been able to travel since moving to the United States. They have been more willing to do so since DACA. “I think this summer my parents were more willing to travel because I had a license. Kansas City was only four hours away, but that was a small accomplishment for our family. We were able to get out and say we weren’t afraid.”
While the exact guidelines of who is newly eligible for DAPA have not been released, it is likely that both of Godinez’s parents will be eligible for deferred action.
Completing the community
Christina Starzl Mendoza, a community planner for the Community Service Council believes DACA has had a two-fold impact on the Tulsa community.
“DACA provides the ability for immigrants to fully contribute and fully engage in the community,” said Mendoza. “There is so much talent in Tulsa that we’re missing out on. We’re always talking about bringing in geniuses from New York or Portland and to me it’s really disappointing because we have so much talent here. Why don’t we invest in the people that are growing up here and have that loyalty to Tulsa?”
“I think that it’s really helped inspire a lot of kids who initially thought they didn’t have any options available. We have one kid who was undocumented and grew up with an expectation that he wasn’t going to be able to go to college or work. He became very disengaged in school. He started to get involved in gangs,” said Mendoza. But now, “along with other supports, he was able to apply for a work permit. He says, ‘I can’t get in trouble because I have a work permit now.’ He’s a real example of a turnaround.”
Mendoza and Godinez both spoke of the multi-faceted impact fear of deportation has on undocumented immigrants, which often results in a fear of institutions.
Undocumented immigrants are less able to be involved in their children’s education. Undocumented parents of U.S. citizens are afraid to sign their children up for health insurance or social assistance. Crimes go unreported because immigrants are afraid of revealing their immigration status.
Godinez also speaks of a different kind of fear, “Anytime I see someone pulled over, my first thought is I hope that they make it back home. I start picturing what if there is a family waiting for them back home and they don’t have any idea they’re not going to make it back.”
DAPA could have a profound impact on the education system in Tulsa. Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in Tulsa Public Schools. “In Oklahoma, 89 percent of Latino students are U.S. citizens. I would be surprised if less than half of them had parents who are undocumented,” said Mendoza. “The largest ethnic group of your school district is suffering from the traumatic stress of fearing that their parents will be deported and the concern that their parents won’t be able to find consistent work. Thinking about that, the impact of DAPA is huge.”
YWCA director Mana Tahaie agrees that fear of deportation affects the decision making process of undocumented immigrants.
“There’s this way in which feeling a lack of belonging and a lack of worth, feelings of living in the shadow, being a permanent apologist for who you are, can have serious psychological effects,” said Tahaie. “What is the impact of flipping that switch? Now you are somebody, you can take up space, you can dream.”
Not there yet
Obama’s executive order will expand the number of people eligible for deferred action from 9,000 to 30,000 in Oklahoma, according to the Center for American Progress.
DREAM Act Oklahoma, a community-based immigrant advocacy organization, co-founder Kasey Hughart celebrated the deferred action programs, but he is not completely satisfied.
“The same number of people will benefit from this as the number of people will not benefit this. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, it will only help around 5 million,” said Hughart.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding DAPA. Hughart described immigration lawyers who are reaching out to the undocumented, telling the immigrants that for $1000 the lawyers will place them in the “front of the line once the executive action goes into effect.”
Lawyers peddling impossible legal miracles are representative of the exploitation the immigrant community often faces, according to Hughart.
Mendoza highlights other challenges in the immigrant community. “There are cultural differences between the immigrant community in Tulsa and immigrants in other cities,” said Mendoza.
Immigrants predominately immigrate from rural communities in Central America and “it affects their abilities to navigate systems, especially the education system.” This results in an inability to reach many of the people who could benefit from DACA or DAPA.
Particular Oklahoma state laws have exacerbated this disconnect between institutions and the immigrant communities. For example, the 2007 law HB 1804 made it a felony to give anyone a ride that is suspected of being undocumented, placed harsh new regulations on employers, restricted the issuing of state IDs and made it harder for undocumented immigrants to access public services.
“Any time there’s an (immigration bill) in the Oklahoma legislature people keep their kids at home,” said Tahaie. “They hear legislation and they think, ‘they’re coming after us.’ Because it’s happened before.”