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  • Writer's pictureCele León

Immigration Issues

One point is clear: the wave of immigrants – legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled – has stimulated enormous economic activity in the District of Columbia. Immigrants are making important contributions to the DC economy and social fabric. The District’s foreign-born population is estimated at 100,000, or 15.4% of the total population. In 2012 it was estimated that Washington DC was home to approximately 20,000 undocumented residents (Source: Pew Hispanic Center). Unauthorized workers constitute 4.1% of DC’s labor force, as compared to 6.7% in Maryland. “New Americans” — immigrants and the children of immigrants – account for 10.5% of registered voters in the District of Columbia. Unauthorized immigrants paid $25.6 million in state and local taxes in 2010, including $16.8 million in sales taxes, $5.5 million in state income taxes, and $3.3 million in property taxes, according to data from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.

Despite the billions in immigrant consumer purchasing power and the many small businesses they own, D.C. immigrants suffer from the federal government’s broken immigration system. As efforts to overhaul the United States immigration laws have stalled, local governments are forced to take action to protect hard-working, undocumented immigrants from deportation. Below is a summary of various policy options and proposed initiatives:

  • DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents): Two “deferred action” Executive Actions initiated by President Obama include DACA and DAPA.

  • DACA provided temporary relief from deportation for children who arrived in the US by 2007 and were enrolled in school or graduated from high school. The filing fee was $465. DAPA has allowed nearly 800,000 young people to go to college, work and avoid deportation. During the Coronavirus pandemic, it was estimated that 27,000 “Dreamers” work in health care. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ordered the DACA program ended in 2017, but lower court rulings kept the program running. Many businesses supported lawsuits that led to court orders to keep the program running. In late 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the Trump Administration’s decision to shut down the program. A ruling is expected sometime in early summer 2020.

  • The DAPA program for parents with US-born citizen children or permanent resident children was announced in late 2014. However, a federal court judge blocked the implementation of this program, so the program was never implemented. Despite these setbacks, it is still important for immigrants to gather tax returns, rent receipts, children’s birth certificates, police records and other evidence to prove that they are eligible to qualify for adjustment to their legal status, if the federal government changes its policy.

It is estimated that 160,000-200,000 unauthorized immigrants would be eligible to apply for deportation relief if expansion of DACA and implementation of DAPA were permitted. Educating area immigrants about these programs is a challenge. Helping immigrants assemble their information and overcome fears about revealing their status to the authorities is critical. Outreach efforts and legal services are required for these programs to be a success. Community members need to be aware of immigration fraud, particularly individuals or lawyers who promise to help you apply for “deferred action”. Beware of fraud: It is important not to trust anyone who says they can get you a spot in the front of the line for a fee.

  • Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

TPS was granted by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) many years ago to eligible foreign born individuals who are unable to return home safely due to conditions or circumstances preventing their country from adequately handling the return. At one point 300,000 foreign nationals from 10 countries were authorized TPS recipients. This program allowed these individuals to obtain work permits, social security numbers, and be allowed to travel abroad with authorization. A majority of TPS holders are from El Salvador, and the Washington metro area is home to 32,359 individuals, it is estimated that 88.5% of TPS recipients from El Salvador and Honduras are working. It is estimated that TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti contribute a combined $4.5 billion in pre-tax wages or salary income annually to our nation’s gross domestic product.

This program has been in effect since 2001, and every president had renewed the program every 18 months. But in 2018 DHS decided to end the program. Salvadorans were given permission to keep their U.S. residency permits until September 9, 2019. In October 2019 TPS status for Salvadorans was extended until January 4, 2021.

  • Deportation following arrests: Continued vigilance is required to ensure that ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) program that succeeded Secure Communities did not allow local authorities to use fingerprint checks after an arrest to lead to deportation and separate established families. In 2011 the DC City Council passed “The Immigration Detainer Compliance Amendment Act”. This law restricts the circumstances when local jails may exercise immigration detainers. An immigration detainer is a request made by federal immigration authorities to a local law enforcement agency to hold an individual after he would otherwise be released for transfer to the immigration detention and deportation system. A detainer is not a warrant or a judicial order; it indicates only a possible civil immigration violation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself maintains that detainers are merely requests that are not binding on local jurisdictions.

One important issue for all immigrants is the need for stronger protections for workers against exploitation and abuse. Such protections would help rid the system of bottom-feeding employers who hire and underpay and otherwise exploit cheap immigrant labor, dragging down wages and workplace standards for everyone. Immigration reform could provide a legal path to many workers. The benefits of legalizing these workers far outweighs keeping them outside the law. If immigrant workers are free to assert their rights without fear, to bargain collectively and blow the whistle on bad employers, all workers will benefit, too.

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