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KPBS Midday Edition

Obama Immigration Policy's Effect On San Diegans

Congressman Brian Bilbray on Immigration
President Obama's policy on young illegal immigrants and how it affects San Diego.
GUESTS:Lilia Velasquez, San Diego attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law. Adrian Florido, reporter from the KPBS Fronteras Desk.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, June†18th. Our top story on Midday Edition, how the president's new immigration policy is working in the real world of San Diego. The policy allowing many young undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits is a life-changing event for some young adults. Others are learning that the strict rules and regulations the policy mean they are not eligible. My guest, Lilia Velasquez, welcome back to the program. VELASQUEZ: Good to be here. CAVANAUGH: And Adrian Florido from the KPBS fronteras desk. FLORIDO: Thanks. CAVANAUGH: What has your office been like since Friday? VELASQUEZ: I would say that just on Friday alone our office received over 100 phone calls. I had to empty my voicemail because it was just crazy. And everybody wanted to know whether this new policy would apply to them. They thought it was a general benefit, and not just for students or young kids. So yes, we have been very, very busy fielding phone calls from the public. CAVANAUGH: Give us if you would, the nuts of the new policy. Who does it apply to? VELASQUEZ: Any person who came here before the age of 16, has been in the U.S. continually for nine years or more, has completed high school or GED, or been in the military. And they don't have any criminal conviction, felonies, misdemeanors. So that is the general plan. But what is important to mention is that this new policy came one year after the previous policy on prosecutorial discretion, which ordered Border Patrol, I.C.E., not to remove people from the country. CAVANAUGH: So you see this as an extension of the previous policy? VELASQUEZ: Yes. And what it added was the ability to get a work permit if the applicant demonstrates economic necessity. CAVANAUGH: But there is it an age cutoff, right? VELASQUEZ: An age cutoff which is 30 years. Anybody who is 29.5 or may be 30 by the time the application period begins will probably be disqualified. CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. I had understood that this went into effect immediately on Friday. VELASQUEZ: Well, it goes into effect in terms of directing field officers not to remove those individuals. My guess is that if they encounter someone who looks to be young, they will be asking them how old are you? Do you go to school? If they meet that criteria, let them go. Most likely they will be applying if are this benefit. FLORIDO: But it is going to take a bit of time to get that application process underway to apply for a work perm. CAVANAUGH: So right now, there is no -- you can't say I've been here, I qualify, I came here at the right age, I am the right age. So give me the documents so that I can try to qualify for a work permit. There is no such thing? VELASQUEZ: This is no such thing. The memo indicates that perhaps in 60 days or so, DHS is going to come up with the process of how this policy will be implemented. So it's premature to see how the process will operate. So we're asking the people to please be very patient and not to go to an unscrupulously attorney or notary public who says hey, you can apply now, give me the money. CAVANAUGH: I see. What stands out for you, Adrian, among the young people you spoke with? FLORIDO: I spoke with one woman who lives up in Escondido on Friday. And there was some of this skepticism initially. I asked what was your first reaction when you heard this morning that the President implementing this new policy? She said, well, my first reaction when I hear anything like this is skepticism. There of course so many promises made over the last several years that there was going to be some kind of provision to give me some kind of legal status. And she went online and looked for news about it, and said oh, this looks like the real thing, finally. At that point she got excited. And she said after that she was just really excited and she said I just want to help the president now. It makes me want to work for his campaign, it makes me and my friends want to mobilize for him. I think there's a lot of that going on. CAVANAUGH: I see. FLORIDO: Shortly after I spoke with her she was heading to a local Ihop to meet up with a bunch of other dreamers who have been waiting for this to figure out what it means for them. CAVANAUGH: And you spoke with Nina Ramirez? FLORIDO: That's her. CAVANAUGH: And she will be able to work here legally. You talked to her parents about how happy they were. NEW SPEAKER: One of the main reasons we came here is that so we could have a better life, better opportunities. I always think about it like -- my life is a product of their sacrifices. And all their hard work. So I know that whatever it is that I can benefit from, they'll be so happy for me. And I feel good to make them proud in that sense. FLORIDO: I asked her what the response of her parents had been, having seen so many of the -- you know, sort of promises and rhetoric from politicians promising that something like this will happen. What was their response in and she said she texted her mother who was at work and told her that this looked like it was going to apply to her, and her mom responded and said God bless the president. CAVANAUGH: You know, I saw that interview which is on our website, and one of the things that struck me is here who is a young woman who is attending school at SDSU. And she's going to try to be a family therapist or a psychologist of some kind? FLORIDO: Right. CAVANAUGH: And you asked her, well, you know, before this announcement, what were you going to do when you graduated? And she just sort of said, well, I was hoping I was hoping I was hoping. So this really changes things for a whole class of people in this United States who were just basically hanging on and hoping that something was going to come along! FLORIDO: For thousand, hundreds of thousand was young people in high school, in college, in postgraduate studies, that's been the case for so long. They had to sort of put to the book of their minds the fact they don't have any real status here and continue with their education with the hope that at some point something would change that would allow them to take advantage of the education they were accumulating. Niddia has never held a job, she's 25, and she continued her studies and extended them as long as possible with the hope that as long as she can keep being in school, before she's done, something like this would happen. And it seems to have happened just in time. CAVANAUGH: Wow. Lilia, how is this new policy different from the federal Dream Act stalled in Congress? VELASQUEZ: Well, are the difference is thattit not a substantive benefit. It doesn't provide legal status. Only Congress can legislate and say, yes, we will approve this measure, it will become law, and people will be able to get legal status like in the mid-80s with amnesty. This is not the same type of benefit as a person that can just take a deep breath and say I'm safe, I will never be deported. And certainly the problem that -- and white people are skeptical, is because elections are around the corner, and many of them feel that if President Obama is not reelected, those individuals who applied, because they met the criteria, that that can be revoked by the new president, and this is the sticky part, that the government will have at their disposal personal information as to the applicant, and certainly there is fear that it could be a backlash, and people will actually be turning themselves in by applying for this benefit. So I think that at least at the national level, immigration lawyers are telling people wait. Let's see what happens. Wait until November. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Interesting, interesting. And that's because this is a presidential policy is not an act of Congress. A new president could come in and just reverse it. VELASQUEZ: That is correct. FLORIDO: There's all this talk about -- we've heard all this talk since Friday that this could affect up to 800,000 young people immediately. But a lot of people still don't know how many of those people are going to take certainly of it. Are a lot of these young people essentially going to flood the offices of immigration services and try to secure this work permit? We're not sure yet. CAVANAUGH: Let me get both of your reactions to this. Critics have criticized this move by President Obama as a political ploy to secure the Latino vote. What is your reaction? VELASQUEZ: It's always political. There's no hiding the fact that Obama wanted to reaffirm or clinch the Hispanic vote. Many of them voted for him the first time, and I think that most of them are still on his side. But the timing could not be worse. And I think this is the concern that we have. Why didn't he wait, or maybe a lot of people can apply now and get a two-year work permit, they will be legal for two years. Even if Mitt Romney comes along and then revokes that benefit. So they said it's a cynical my. CAVANAUGH: Yes, I've heard that. VELASQUEZ: That he's circumventing the Congress. The people on the other hand, the public, they're for this type of policy. Because when you look at an individual case, like niddia for example, how many people like that do we have in the United States who are eager, eager to continue with higher education, get a work permit, be a licensed driver? Something that we all take for granted. And I think that -- I cannot dismiss the criticism against the president. He said in fact there's no excuse for Congress to stand by and do nothing while so many families are struggling. So the message is you, Congress, for ten years you have been debating this issue, you have not approved the measure, so I'm going to do it. CAVANAUGH: Adrian, from what the reaction -- you know, I'm going to work for the president, niddia, it seems liking to a small extent, that is going to have political consequence, and apparently good ones for President Obama. FLORIDO: There's no question. There's never been any doubt as to how much support the president has among the Latino community. An overwhelming majority of the Latino community still supports Obama. In the polls, Latinos have consistently said despite their support, one thing that continued to irk them was these deportations. And that kind of held them back from their overwhelming enthusiasm to get him reelected. So this seems to have done that for him. There was a poll conducted over the weekend by Latino decisions, a polling firm in five key swing states, and they polled Latinos and said what does this policy mean for you, and a large proportion said we're more enthusiastic about electing the president. And Romney hasn't outright rejected this policy. He's been asked what do you think about this, and he criticized the president for going around Congress to implement it, but when asked whether he would revoke it as president, he's held back. He and the Republicans know that Latinos are an important constituency for them, and they don't want to further alienate them. >> Well, he's holding back now, but previously Mitt Romney has stated that if the dream act were approved, he would veto it. And so now he's not saying that. Now he's walking on eggshells and saying, wait a second, now if Obama is for it, then I have to be against it, which is clearly going to alienate a huge number of Latino voters. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about a possible backlash. There have been some negative reactions to this new policy from people around the country, people in San Diego. Some folks this is a bad move by the president to add illegal people to the work force. What's your response? VELASQUEZ: This issue has been debated for decades. I've been in practice for 30 years and it has always been the case. Yet we actually have a labor shortage in this country. By June 11th, 85,000 visas had been exhausted. It means that right now we have a labor shortage, the baby boomers are becoming very old and will probably die. And who is going to replace them? The Latino professionals that come about in this country. CAVANAUGH: We're expecting any day, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on key elements of Arizona's SB1070 anti-immigration law. Could that interview with this new policy? VELASQUEZ: I think that there is a conflict. Everybody thinks that the show me your papers part of the Arizona laws is going to be accepted, probably. So the question is if a Border Patrol officer or an I.C.E. officer were to encounter an 18 year-old who is still in high school are they going to say show me your paper, and if you don't, I'm going to take you into custody? That would certainly be against the policy by Obama. And so there will be friction. There's still friction already. CAVANAUGH: I really do want to ask you Lilia, because you have been fielding phone calls from people, and they think they my qualify for this, yet you have to tell them, well, no you don't you're too old or you came to this country too late. VELASQUEZ: You didn't finish high school. CAVANAUGH: What is that like? VELASQUEZ: It's very, very difficult. Many students don't continue their education, I cannot drive, I cannot working therefore I'm going to quit school and do manual labor. And that's a concern. FLORIDO: I did hear this story of one young woman who was well on her way to an advanced degree from San Diego state who realized that there was no future in that, and because of that said there's no point in continuing my education here. She left for Tijuana and now is living there trying to make a new life for herself. And if seems like it may have been bad timing on her part. CAVANAUGH: Right, right well, we'll follow this story as it unfolds across the country and here in San Diego. Thank you both for a lot of really good information.

Lilia Velasquez, New Immigration Policy
Undocumented Students React To Obama Policy

Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego attorney specializing in immigration law, said her office was flooded with calls Friday after President Barack Obama announced he was easing enforcement of immigration laws.

People of all ages who came to the United States illegally called, hoping the president’s announcement meant they could stay in the country and work.

Velasquez had to tell them the easement only applied to a small portion of the undocumented immigrant population: those currently younger than 30 who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16. Immigrants must also have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history and have graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a GED, or served in the military.

If these stipulations apply, they can apply for a work permit. About 800,000 immigrants are expected to be affected.

But callers to Velasquez’s office “thought it was a general type of benefit, like amnesty back in the 1980s,” she said.

When she told them the policy change did not apply to them, “they were very, very sad,” she said. Those just over the 30-year-old cutoff mark asked, “‘why couldn’t this come three years ago, why did Obama wait three years to do something this positive for the community?’” she said.

But, Velasquez said she thinks Obama was waiting for Congress to pass legislation, and only chose this measure as a temporary solution.

Congressman Brian Bilbray, who is running for re-election in the 52nd Congressional District, told KPBS he is against the policy change because he said it announces, "if you send your children to the United States illegally, (Obama) will make sure that they're accommodated and are given a work permit."

Instead, he said, the government should crack down on employers who exploit illegal immigrants.

"I just wish the people who were talking about this would have to go down to the border and recover bodies like I have," he said.

The policy change bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the "DREAM Act," congressional legislation that would establish a path toward citizenship for the same group of young immigrants.

“What this policy is, we have a vulnerable group of kids who are bright, who are in school, let’s do something about that,” Velasquez said. “Let them get out of the shadow. Let’s benefit from the education we have already given them.”

She said she thinks the public agrees with the policy, even if many politicians do not.