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  • Writer's pictureOrina Ontiri

Texas at epicentre of immigration action delay: ‘People have been freaking out’

After a judge in the state blocked President Obama’s executive action to shield millions of undocumented immigrants, many locals feel mistrustful of government and confused over what happens next  daca and dapa rally  Ruben Casillas, right, and others show their support during an event on Daca and Dapa immigration relief at the Houston International Trade Center on Tuesday. Photograph: Melissa Phillip/AP

The late-night suspension of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration meant a busy day for Abraham Espinosa, combatting conservative fear-mongering and calming disrupted lives.

“It’s been crazy, man. A lot of people have been freaking out,” the immigrant advocate said from his office in Houston, where he and his co-workers fielded calls, emails and Facebook messages from worried migrants. “There is a lot of confusion and there’s going to be even more confusion now.”

About 350 miles south-west, in the border city of Brownsville, a conservative district judge had dealt the Obama administration and potentially millions of undocumented immigrants a setback by issuing an injunction blocking a plan to offer relief from deportation for many parents of US citizens and an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme.

Daca applications were to be accepted starting Wednesday, with the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (Dapa) plan set to be implemented in May. Now the government may face a long court battle to overturn Monday night’s ruling. Filed in December, the lawsuit was led by the Republican Greg Abbott, now Texas’s governor, and supported by 25 other states.

“It’s starting to discourage people from applying,” Espinosa said. “We had one guy who came in who had everything ready, we had to tell him he couldn’t apply … There’s been a mistrust for a long time between our community and the federal government. All this is just encouraging that mistrust.”

Espinosa works for Fiel, an acronym of Spanish words which translate as Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle. From its headquarters above a beads wholesaler in a multiethnic area on the edge of Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District – the kind of place where it’s easy to buy a taco and a sari – the organisation provides a range of legal, educational and financial services for a mainly Mexican clientele.

As conservatives have repeatedly noted, the Houston area has a high number of undocumented immigrants: as many as 600,000, according to some estimates, with another million elsewhere in Texas. More than a third might qualify for deferred action.

Espinosa said that on an average day, Fiel helps 30-50 people, from those who are close to becoming US citizens to others under threat of deportation. The introduction of Daca in 2012, the 24-year-old said, created a huge buzz: “The line was all the way to the bus stop [100 yards away]; 300 people showed up to our first forum.”

Born in Mexico, Espinosa was taken to Houston as a baby and did not secure legal permanent resident status until he was 20, through his US citizen stepfather. His sister and brother qualified for Daca.

So did Steven Arteaga-Rodriguez, a student who was one of a group of young immigrants invited to the White House to meet the president earlier this month.

His mother, Alma Rodriguez, is hoping to benefit from Dapa. She has lived as an undocumented immigrant in Houston for over 19 years, she said before a press conference and rally in Houston’s downtown federal building hosted by Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democratic US congresswoman.

Lee was flanked by about 25 activists, many holding placards bearing the slogans “I am ready, I am America” and “Yes we can with Dapa”. A framed photograph of Obama stared at them from one of the lobby’s walls while several armed Department of Homeland Security officers stood in the background, watching the event.

Lee accused opponents of immigration reform of using last summer’s influx of unaccompanied Central American minors into the Rio Grande valley to stoke unjustified fears that migrants are a threat to the US, rather than an asset.

Rodriguez came to the US from Mexico, gave birth to an American child, then returned south of the border when her husband was deported. She had two more children and made her way back to the US. Without legal status, she said, she is unable to renew her driver’s license.

Texas changed its rules in 2008 to stop undocumented immigrants being granted licenses. One of the state’s complaints, referenced in judge Andrew Hanen’s opinion, is that it would lose several million dollars if forced to supply licenses to those eligible for Dapa.

“I’m sad, I feel like they’re trying to force us to give up. It’s a political game,” Rodriguez said through a translator. “Other presidents have done executive orders and nothing has happened [to stop them] – it hasn’t mattered until now.”

Rodriguez, like many legal experts, said that she is confident Dapa will eventually become reality.

“It is going to help a lot as far as getting a stable job,” she said. “I’ve had jobs but there’s always the fear of losing the job. It will help me provide for my family and remove the fear.”

Carlos Duarte of Mi Familia Vota, an electoral education nonprofit, said the ruling was “only a temporary setback” and that deferred action will help immigrants “be productive members of society” and “lose the fear that so many people have had, driving through the streets”.

As migrants in Texas digest the impact of Monday’s news, Espinosa said he is gearing up for another fight to defend their rights: some Texas Republicans are set to try to repeal a 2001 state law that allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates. For many conservatives, former governor Rick Perry’s support for the law during the 2012 presidential race was a bigger “oops” moment than his actual “oops” gaffe.

Global Radio Network

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