Will New Policy Reopen Immigration Debate?

Immigration lawyers are moving quickly in response to President Obama's decision to let certain illegal immigrants stay in the country. Host Michel Martin discusses the latest changes with immigration attorney Sarah Moshe and two undocumented immigrants: journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and immigration rights advocate Gaby Pacheco.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. By now, you may have heard that Rodney King was found dead yesterday in the swimming pool of his California home. He was the African-American motorist who was badly beaten by a group of Los Angeles police. Their acquittal after a trial in 1992 sparked one of this country's worst riots in modern times.

Mr. King was a guest on this program only a short time ago so we can tell you what he'd been up to recently and how he viewed his place in history. We'll talk about that later in the program. But first, we want to turn to a stunning announcement by President Obama last week on another of this country's most explosive issues.

The president announced his administration will stop deporting people who were brought here illegally as children and allow them to apply for work permits as long as they meet a number of conditions. For example, they must have arrived here before the age of 16 and be no older than 30 now. They must be in school, a high school graduate or military veteran, have no criminal record and pose no security threat.

Now, over the weekend much of the focus turned to the political implications of the announcement, but today we decided to try to find out exactly how this is going to work and what this means to the people most directly affected. In just a moment we'll speak with Sarah Moshe. She's an immigration attorney with the firm Lewis & Kappes.

It turns out that the American Immigration Lawyers Association were holding their annual meeting in Nashville when the announcement came, so we'll ask her about the scene there in a few minutes. First though, we want to turn to Jose Antonio Vargas. He's featured on the cover of the latest Time magazine for his story about life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.

He was sent here from the Philippines to live with his grandparents when he was 12. After managing to build a successful career as a journalist despite his unauthorized status, he decided to come out very publicly in the pages of the New York Times last year. He's been both reporting on the story and engaging in activism around immigration ever since. Jose Antonio, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Gaby Pacheco. She's come out as an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. She's the coordinator of the Education Not Deportation project. She's 27 years old. She's been in this country since she was 7, when her parents brought her here from Ecuador. Gaby, welcome back to you as well. Thank you for coming.

GABY PACHECO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jose, I'm thinking that this announcement must have been bittersweet for you because you meet every criteria but one - you're 31 years old. So I'm guessing that you're not eligible for this program. How are you doing?

VARGAS: Well, you know, I'm not sure if bittersweet is the word. I mean, I think that I mean - I think Friday was the day that I felt officially kind of old. I think that was my reaction in my head, was like, wow. The other reaction is, you know, when the DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001, the age limit was actually 21.

So, the age limit kind of kept getting higher and higher. It went to, like, 25, then 28, then 35, then 30, then 32. And it's almost as if somebody's just picking some number off a hat. But at the end of the day, you know, being in D.C., being with Gaby - you know, Gaby Pacheco is one of the people that inspired me to come out.

Being with her in D.C. like on Friday and seeing just the joy out of the faces of people what upwards of one million young people are impacted by this, you know, how can I be just not happy? I was thrilled, and I am thrilled.

MARTIN: Gaby, what about you? You were telling us that your phone's been ringing off the hook to the effect that you've had very little sleep over the last couple of days. So what went through your mind when you heard this?

PACHECO: Well, as an organizer I was like, how are we going to implement it and how are we going to make sure that we protect this? Because this is very historic and I cannot begin to explain or say how big this is going to be on the lives of, like Jose Antonio said, a million people. A million young people who by every means feel American but haven't been able to, you know, realize their dreams because of the fact that they're missing this one paper.

But just - I feel so powerful. I feel my community has been able to be recognized finally and that change in this country around immigration and specifically the 11.5 million immigrants that are in this country is about to change.

MARTIN: Well, what about you? I know you've talked a lot about you. I know you're an activist.

PACHECO: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what about you? What about you, Gaby? Did you feel like a moment when you could exhale?

PACHECO: That's the first thing I did. I took a deep breath and then I just, you know, let it out. And I don't know if anybody has ever seen a little bird escape a cage and how happy they feel and they just fly and they fly as high as they can and, you know, they do it so fast that if you blink you miss it.

And I think that that's exactly how I felt. I felt like somebody opened a door and I just, you know, opened my wings and flew out.

MARTIN: Sarah Moshe, let's turn to you. As we mentioned, you're an immigration attorney and you were actually at the annual meeting of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Nashville when the decision was announced. What was the scene like there?

SARAH MOSHE: Well, initially we got word through text and it said that there was to be a major announcement and then the buzz started going through and people were walking in and out of sessions and on their phones and on their laptops. And then at noon, Nashville time, on Friday we all gathered in one of the conference rooms at the resort and they had Obama's announcement on the big screen. And, I mean, there were many, many thousands of immigration attorneys there who were just thrilled. I mean, we were cheering and smiling and so happy and everyone was just over the moon.

MARTIN: Can you give an example, though, of this? Will this have an immediate effect on some of your clients, to the degree that you can tell us while, you know, maintaining attorney-client privilege? But can you just give us some scenarios?

MOSHE: Sure, absolutely. Like Gaby said, my phone's been going crazy with email and text and calls from many families who will stand to benefit. I have a Guatemalan client, for example, whose father came and applied for asylum. It was ultimately denied and they were given a final order of removal. She is a high school graduate, works in the dental field, has a young daughter, is a single mom, and she will benefit from this.

I have another Eastern European client whose parents came on visas and he was a successful high school graduate, had applied to Purdue University here in Indiana but couldn't go because he didn't have documentation. So he will also benefit.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about President Obama's announcement last week that certain young undocumented immigrants will not face deportation proceedings, at least temporarily. They will also be eligible for work permits as long as they meet certain criteria.

They have to have been brought here at a certain age. They cannot be older than 30 and pose no national security threat. So Jose Antonio, let's just talk, though, a little bit about - some of the people, as I mentioned, that you are not only the subject of the story but you also reported very extensively around this for Time magazine for a cover story and you profile a number of people. Can you just talk a little bit about some of the scenarios that brought people here?

Because you also talk about the fact that as you've talked more about this a lot of Americans just have questions about, you know, how is it possible that you could have so many young people who were here and kind of go all the way kind of through life and still be in this limbo status. Could you just tell us a couple of the stories?

VARGAS: I mean, I would just say that, you know, immigration is quite possibly the most fundamentally misunderstood issue in America. Just people don't understand how the process works and how there isn't a line for somebody even like me to get, you know, in line and say all right, this is how I'm going to adjust my status and make myself quote/unquote, "legal."

And what I find interesting too is, you know, on the cover of Time magazine, I mean, this is immigration in American in the 21st century. You have 36 undocumented young people on the cover of Time magazine from 15 different countries: Nigeria, Germany, Israel, of course, all over Latin America, Korea. I'm from the Philippines. This is not a purely Hispanic-Latino issue.

And I find it really staggering that us in the media, and also the politicians, have completely ghetto-ized the issue and make it seem as if it's just Mexicans or it's just brown people. That's just simply not the truth. And to me, I mean, what's - you know, I remember, you know, Friday as Gaby said was incredibly emotional but looking at this cover right now, what, 32 out of the 36 people on this cover can now work.

Can now be the lawyer and the graphic designer and the biologist and the doctor that they studied to be. Like, we are now going to have tax paying people. Like, how many times can you say that a policy, by the way, gives tax revenues? Right?

So I think that's really interesting. And part of, to me - I mean Gaby and I talk a lot about this - we are in the golden age of coming out. More and more undocumented people will be coming out - and not only that, the people who support us, educators, pastors, teachers, neighbors, our coworkers who have been protecting us all these years under - because of these broken law, under this broken system, will also be speaking out.

And I think this is a game-changer. What we're entering here is a new normal when it comes to immigration.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about that, and I also want to talk about some people who are not so thrilled with this, and even before the announcement was made, that we've gotten some emails from people anticipating it, you know, very angry about this. I want to talk about that in a minute.

But Sarah Moshe, I do want to go back to you and just ask you again: Exactly what happens now? I mean, don't all these cases have to be decided on a case-by-case basis? Is there the capacity...

MOSHE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...for that? I mean, one of the points that Jose Antonio was making is that the system is already clogged, that one can wait years for consideration for a green card, even if one's papers are in order. OK? So does the system have the capacity to address all these cases?

MOSHE: We're not sure yet. Obviously, we're hoping so. It is on a case-by-case basis, and the memo from Napolitano said action within 60 days. So we're hoping things will move quickly. We heard from an attorney on Friday who had already been contacted by the Department of Homeland Security's attorney in Chicago, saying let's get these cases through for deferred action.

So we're hoping. We still don't have directive on exactly how we're going to implement this new regulation. We're looking for that. I'm sure this week we'll find more about affirmative applications and how to pull these cases out of the docket - those that are in immigration court already.

So, right now, it's Monday morning. The announcement came Friday. So we're still waiting to see how exactly we're going to do this, but I know every immigration attorney who was in Nashville on Friday is absolutely prepared to move forward as soon as we get word.

MARTIN: Gaby, though, what about people who don't have attorneys? I'm imagining those are some of the people that you deal with in your group. Just - we have about a minute left, and we're going to take a short break and come back. But what about that?

PACHECO: Yeah. And we're working diligently to make sure that we find pro bono and pro se work, and through UnitedWeDream.org, we're going to have just a hub of people that we're going to be able to teach them how to even do their own form if they don't have, like, intricate things, you know, that they have to worry about.

But, yeah, we're going to, you know, really hope that we get as many attorneys as we can and that we teach people how to, you know, fill out those forms.

MARTIN: We're talking about the Obama administration's announcement that young, unauthorized immigrants won't face deportation proceedings for the time being. Our guests are immigration attorney Sarah Moshe, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, activist Gaby Pacheco. She's a project coordinator for the group Education Not Deportation. I'd like to ask everybody to please stand by while we take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about some of the people who are very angry about the decision and how you respond to what they have to say. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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