Last week, President Obama fulfilled his promise to use his executive authority on immigration policy. His plan offers deportation deferment for three years as well as work permits and Social Security numbers to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants.
The panel on Monday’s Kentucky Tonight debated the president’s plan and how it fits into overall reform efforts. The guests were attorneys Marilyn Daniel and Rachel Mendoza-Newton, Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl, and Americans First co-founder Ronald Vissing.
Who the President’s Plan Will Help
The Obama executive action targets immigrants who have lived here continuously for five years and the parents of children who are U.S. citizens. The plan also includes provisions to strengthen border security and ease some application procedures for immigrant entrepreneurs and those with high-tech skills.
Marilyn Daniel, who is co-founder of the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington, says the president’s action did not change any law or anyone’s legal status, much less provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But she says the Obama plan does stop for now the deportations that are most likely to hurt immigrant families – while Congress pursues comprehensive reform.
“Most of these immigrants live in mixed-status families,” Daniel says. “When you reach in and pull a family member out and deport them, you leave a partial family unit that is totally changed and unstable.”
Those who apply for the deferred deportation must provide the government with their name, address, and birth date, be fingerprinted, and prove they’ve lived here for five years and have no criminal record. Louisville immigration attorney Mendoza-Newton says most undocumented immigrants have worked for years in low-skill, low-paying jobs. She says these individuals often remain in the shadows because they fear losing their jobs, homes, and children.
“This has kept them in this horrendous position of having to sacrifice their present and their future for the well-being of their children,” Mendoza-Newton explains. “And that is just heartbreaking.”
American Citizens Should Be the Priority
But opponents question how an already over-taxed immigration system can accurately verify the residency, family connections, and criminal record of thousands, if not millions of potential applicants.
“If they’ve been living in the shadows… what kind of verification is there that they’ve actually been here five years,” says Ronald Vissing of Americans First.
He contends that we can forgive undocumented immigrants for breaking the law, but we shouldn’t reward them for doing so by allowing them to stay in the country and take jobs away from Americans.
Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl goes one step farther to claim that these immigrants also depress wages because they’re willing work for less pay. Instead of helping immigrants build lives here, Goettl prefers to focus on helping needy citizens.
“Let’s talk about the 50 million Americans who are living in poverty – their families are being torn apart,” Goettl says. “Can we take care of everybody in the world? I say we can’t, so let’s start with the American citizens first.”
Watch an excerpt of the Kentucky Tonight debate.
The Issue of Amnesty
Instead of the president’s plan, Goettl says he prefers the so-called Gang of Eight reform package, which was developed in 2013 by four Democratic and four Republican senators and required illegal immigrants to pay a fine and back taxes. He argues that Obama’s action gives amnesty to the undocumented because it fails to penalize immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Mendoza-Newton disagrees with that characterization of the Obama plan. She says no one has proposed outright amnesty since the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986.
That legislation was not without its flaws, according to Ronald Vissing. He says illegal immigration increased in the decade after the measure passed as people flocked to the U.S. in case further rounds of amnesty followed. Plus, Vissing says the measure cost taxpayers some $80 billion.
Brian Goettl contends the Obama action will also be expensive. He cites a Heritage Foundation report that puts the cost of the president’s program at $2 trillion.
But immigration attorney Marilyn Daniel says Americans actually gain from bringing these immigrants on to the tax rolls. She says the Social Security Administration estimates that 75 percent of undocumented workers already pay income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes through payroll deductions. Daniels says U.S. citizens get those benefits, not the illegal immigrants who helped fund them.
Moving Forward with Reform
How President Obama’s executive action will affect future negotiations on immigration reform is uncertain. Some conservatives argue that Obama’s move is illegal, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has even threatened a government shutdown over the issue.
While the Senate did pass a bipartisan reform package in 2013, the legislation has languished without a vote in the House of Representatives. Instead of one massive overhaul, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he prefers to tackle immigration through smaller, separate measures. Brian Goettl supports that strategy.
“We see how bad these omnibus bills are,” Goettl says, referring to huge legislation like the Affordable Care Act. “I think our Congress should have debates on the issues and pass legislation that makes sense for the common good of the citizens of the United States and not the world.”
Rachel Mendoza-Newton says Congress is overdue to tackle the problem, but she contends the comprehensive approach is better because the immigration system is so complex.
“You have to address push and pull factors at same time or you won’t fix the problem,” she says. “You have to address what’s pushing people out of their countries and what’s pulling them here.”
Ronald Vissing agrees that incentives for illegal workers must be removed. He would start by requiring every employer to use the federal government’s E-Verify system to confirm an employee’s eligibility to work.
“That would help turn off the magnet that’s attracting illegal immigrants to come into this country,” Vissing says. “Number two, we need to take away the incentives that are keeping them here, and that would be benefits, the jobs, [and] things like that.”
But Lexington attorney Marilyn Daniel thinks the reform process needs to start with something even simpler.
“If we can have a rational, realistic, sincere conversation in this country about what we really need, and why we need others to come in, I think that would be a tremendous step forward,” says Daniel.
The opinions expressed on Kentucky Tonight and in this program synopsis are the responsibility of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of KET.