Executive action is welcome news on Island

Members of the Brazilian community celebrated faith and culture at the Whaling Church in October. — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

President Barack Obama took action last week that could lead to protection from deportation and a legal right to work for undocumented immigrants who have been living and working in violation of federal laws on Martha’s Vineyard for many years.

The president’s executive action, long awaited by advocates of immigration reform, and long disputed by Mr. Obama’s political foes, would not provide a path to citizenship for the estimated five million undocumented immigrants who might benefit. It would, in general, allow undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years, and who have no criminal record, the right to work legally without fear of deportation for a limited number of years.

“These executive actions crackdown on illegal immigration at the border, prioritize deporting felons not families, and require certain undocumented immigrants to pass a criminal background check and pay their fair share of taxes as they register to temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation,” the White House wrote in a statement issued just before the president addressed the nation on November 20.

Help for families

Pastor Joao Barbosa of the Mission Calvary Church in Vineyard Haven said he believes the changes in immigration policy will help many families on the Island. “It brings good favor for people (undocumented immigrants) who are receiving help from the government, the economy of the country itself,” he said. “When a family knows more about the future, they can buy houses, they can go to school, they can invest instead of sending money out of the country. A lot of people were stressed or worried, now they can make more plans to stay in the country. They’re just thankful this is happening.”

Bishop Paulo Tenorio, spiritual leader of The Growing Church Ministry in Vineyard Haven, also applauded the president’s action. “There are a lot of people that will benefit,” he said. “It’s the right direction. We have a broken system. It’s something that needs to be faced in the country. He’s giving a little push.”

Wender Ramos, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who just completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, said he is happy for the change in policy, but he said it came far too late for him.

He came to Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 13 with his mother and sister, all undocumented. He is now a U.S. citizen, and his mother and sister have legal status to live and work in the United States, while they are working toward citizenship. While he said the latest change in immigration policy won’t affect his family, he said he faced significant barriers as he grew up, went to Island schools, and then college.

“It’s something we could have used,” Mr. Ramos said. “Back when I was in grade school and high school, it would have expedited my life as well as my mom’s and my sister’s. We always talked about it, saying we wished this would happen.”

Programs expanded

Mr. Obama’s action expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that he initiated in 2012. The original DACA program was intended to protect children who were brought into the United States illegally as children. Eligible were children who have been in the United States for at least five years, came as children, were in school or have completed school, have no serious criminal record, were born after 1981 and entered the country before June 15, 2007. Those who met those requirements could apply for a two-year period of protection from deportation, and were eligible for work permits. According to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, more than a half-million people, or about 95 percent of those applications accepted for review, have been approved for DACA status. In Massachusetts, 6,596 applications were accepted for review, and 5,318 were approved.

Under the latest executive action, children who came to the United States before January 1, 2010, no matter what their age now, will be eligible, and the period of deferred action will expand to three years.

The largest group of undocumented immigrants who will benefit from the president’s executive action are the parents of children who were born in the United States, who are legal citizens. In order to qualify, the parents must register with the federal government, pass a criminal background check, and pay any back taxes. If qualified, the parents can apply for a three-year deferred action, and remain in the United States without fear of deportation. They can also apply for work permits.

The president’s executive action does not provide a path to citizenship for anyone eligible for deferred action or work permit status. A future president could also rescind the executive actions.

ICE changes

The Dukes County Jail no longer holds immigrants in custody based solely on a request from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain an individual. The change in procedure follows a federal court ruling in Oregon on April 11 that ruled that practice unconstitutional.

Previously, ICE issued detainee orders that asked local law enforcement authorities to hold an individual in jail for up to 48 hours while ICE decided whether to take the person into federal custody.

ICE issued detainee orders for a wide range of reasons: ICE simply wanted to talk to the person, the person did not appear at hearing, the person was wanted for a serious crime, or the person had already been ordered deported.

In April, U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, ruled that a detainee order alone is not a legal justification to incarcerate someone. The case involved Maria Miranda-Olivares, a woman who was ordered released on bail by a local court after she was arrested on a domestic violence charge. Local authorities kept her in custody because ICE had issued a detainer. The court ruled that keeping her in custody violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment, and the court allowed the woman to seek damages from the jail.

Immigrants were often held in custody at the Dukes County Jail solely on the basis of an ICE detainee order. This month, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack changed the procedure.

“We are no longer holding anybody on an ICE detainer, if there is no other reason to hold them,” Sheriff McCormack told The Times. “If we get a hit on a detainer, we will call ICE. But if they would otherwise be able to be released, like they made bail, or they were released by the court, if we have no reason to hold the person except the ICE detainer, then we won’t hold them.”

Mr. McCormack said holding people on ICE detainee orders could leave the jail vulnerable to lawsuits.

“The underlying reason amounts to probable cause,” Sheriff McCormack said. “The actual detainer has no charges on it, doesn’t say anything about having enough probable cause to be holding them. The detainer just says ICE has an interest in them. We can’t take somebody’s freedom just because ICE has an interest in them.”

President Obama, in his executive action on immigration, ordered ICE to stop asking local authorities to detain people arrested for minor offenses. The federal government will now only ask local officials to transfer custody of an arrested person to ICE after he or she has been convicted of a felony, or three misdemeanors. ICE will not ask jail officials to detain people, but they will ask local police to notify federal agents when an immigrant convicted of a crime is due to be released.

The president made significant changes to the controversial Secure Communities program, which authorized local jail officials to transmit fingerprints of anyone arrested to ICE where they could be checked against a database.

The Dukes County Jail did not participate directly in Secure Communities, but they did forward fingerprints of everyone arrested by Island law enforcement to Massachusetts State Police. State Police then transmitted those fingerprints to ICE. That procedure remains in effect, according to Sheriff McCormack.