After President Barack Obama outlined his executive action on immigration during a primetime address on Nov. 20, Donna Gann, program coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Immigration Services department, knew her phone would soon be ringing off the hook and she would be working in overdrive to get accurate information out to the Middle Tennessee immigrant community.
"There's a lot of people out there who will scam you," Gann said. "It's imperative that we get the word out to people," about exactly what the executive action can, and can't, do for immigrants.
She said immigrants should be especially leery of dishonest immigrant consultants known as "notarios." They cannot provide official representation in the immigration process, and "they may get a person in trouble and jeopardize what they qualify for," Gann said.
On Nov. 20, Obama laid out his plans for allowing an estimated 40 percent of the 11 million people without legal immigration status to be temporarily protected from deportation. The package of administrative actions includes reprioritizing who the government will target for deportation, cracking down primarily on dangerous criminals and new arrivals at the border.
"We're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security," Obama said in his televised address from the White House. "Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids."
With predictably fierce opposition from Republican members of Congress, the executive order could face a number of roadblocks before it is signed into law. And none of the actions would take effect before February, said Gann. "It's not set in stone yet."
To help educate immigrants about the executive action, Gann, along with immigration attorney Yvette Sebelist, will be leading two upcoming town hall meetings, Dec. 11 and 17, from 6-7 p.m. at the Global Mall in Antioch.
"Once the order is law, we will help people file for whatever they're eligible for," Gann said. The most talked about part of the order, which most immigrants will be filing for, she said, is basically an expansion of the two-year-old program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Through it, more than half a million young adults and teens who came to the U.S. as minors have been promised they won't be deported if they stay out of trouble.
In exchange for registering with the government, going through background checks and other requirements and paying fees, they received work permits and Social Security numbers. The new program would offer the same deal to parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders who have lived here for at least five years, a potential pool of more than 4 million people, according to the White House. Both the parents-of-citizens program and DACA will now be good for three years, and renewable.
The program is expected to be up and running in the spring.
"This is a step in the right direction because the main focus is to keep families together," Gann said. "If this doesn't go through, there's the possibility of mothers and fathers being ripped from their families." The order, she said, "gives families the freedom to live without fear and be more productive members of the community."
Gann and many other Catholics nationwide who work closely with immigrants welcome the order, but said that it is not enough. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said that Obama's action is "sort of like putting a Band-Aid on a wound. We still need Congress to act to provide comprehensive immigration reform. That's the real solution."
Archbishop Wenski urged Obama's critics in Congress to "take a deep breath and get control of themselves and enact comprehensive immigration reform."
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also welcomed the order. He quoted Pope Francis in saying every human being bears the image of Christ. "We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved."
What's not part of the executive action, Gann said, is a path to permanent U.S. residency or citizenship, but she is hopeful that this will open the door to real comprehensive immigration reform. "I hope we can keep moving upward and onward."