This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in what may be the most significant case related to immigration in a generation or more. United States v. Texas pits a coalition of 26 Republican-controlled states — including Arkansas — against the Obama administration, with the states contending the White House has overstepped its constitutional bounds. At stake are the president’s 2014 executive actions on immigration policy, which aim to protect some undocumented immigrants from the threat of imminent deportation if their records are free of felonies or repeated misdemeanors. Vox has an excellent explainer about the legal ins and outs.
Among those on hand at the court today is a delegation of activists from the Arkansas United Community Coalition, an immigrants rights organization based in Springdale. On Saturday, the AUCC bus stopped briefly in Little Rock, and I spoke to one of those Arkansans headed to Washington, DC to watch the case unfold.
Cruz Segura, 25, is already benefiting from an executive order similar to those at the heart of the lawsuit before the court today. Segura is among the approximately 1.2 million young people who have been approved for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive action President Obama issued in 2012 that allowed certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to obtain work authorization and live free from the fear of deportation. DACA is really nothing more than prosecutorial discretion exercised by federal immigration enforcement agencies. It does not provide a pathway to citizenship for Segura and other recipients, something that would require congressional action. Instead, DACA sets priorities for law enforcement when it comes to the matter of who to target: Why spend billions of dollars deporting people without any criminal history aside from the fact of their immigration status? (Meanwhile, the Obama administration has not exactly been reluctant to deport immigrants more generally.)
Segura said “deferred action” has changed his life for the better. “It took a lot of that worry away. I have a driver’s license now — before DACA, I didn’t have state ID or a license. … And I applied for work authorization and got it. They sent me a card and everything that said ‘authorized for employment.’ Through DACA, I have been able to get employed.”
DACA is limited to a narrow band of undocumented immigrants. The order as created in 2012 grants eligibility only to those who meet the following criteria: If you were under 31 as of June 15, 2012; if you arrived in the U.S. before you turned 16; if you’ve continuously resided in the U.S. since 2007; if you’re currently in school or have graduated from high school; and, if you have a clean legal record. (Here’s the link to USCIS to apply for DACA or renew status.) Moreover, it’s not permanent. DACA beneficiaries must reapply for renewal every two years, and since this is an executive order rather than a law, the next president could undo it with a stroke, as Ted Cruz and others have promised to do.
In 2014, with immigration reform legislation stalled in a recalcitrant Congress, Obama moved to broaden “deferred action” in two ways. First, DACA would be expanded to remove the age cap. Second, he issued a new executive order called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, that would similarly shield parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents from deportation, as well as grant them work authorization. It’s estimated that some four million people in the U.S. could be eligible for DAPA. But although few Republicans openly opposed the original DACA in 2012, the GOP quickly mobilized against DAPA and “DACA+” in 2014, crying presidential overreach. The new executive orders were enjoined by a federal judge in Texas in February 2015, shortly before they were scheduled to go into effect, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the injunction.
All of this means United States v. Texas is about even more than the question of what happens to millions of people now living in the country’s shadows. It’s also a partisan political battle and a significant separation of powers question. As the Washington Post puts it:
[T]he justices will confront a fundamental tension of Obama’s tenure: whether the president is correctly using the substantial powers of his office to propel the nation past political gridlock or whether he has ignored constitutional boundaries to unilaterally impose policies that should require congressional acquiescence.
Segura said he’s not been involved in any political activism before, but he feels it’s important for him to go to Washington. “DACA really affects me, and I’ve never had this kind of opportunity ever before … I want to show my support since I have benefited, and this is one way to do it,” he said.”
Segura was brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 7 and has lived most of his life in Hot Springs. He attended Hot Springs High, then transferred to the Arkansas School for Math, Sciences and the Arts for his final two years of high school. Then, when it came time for college, he realized his immigration status would be a major roadblock.
“When I first applied to different colleges, I knew that might be an issue. I called UALR and said ‘Hey, I’m undocumented, but I want to come to your college. I graduated from ASMSA.’ Someone at UALR told me over the phone, ‘We can’t accept you. We can’t allow you to come to our college, despite your credentials.’ That was kind of a downer. So then I called U of A, and they were like, ‘We can help you out, but you have to pay out-of-state tuition.’” Arkansas Tech University told him the same thing. Public colleges and universities in Arkansas cannot apply much cheaper in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students, even if they’ve attended public school in Arkansas all their lives. (Legislation pushed by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) would change that, but the General Assembly has voted it down again and again.)
With higher out-of-state rates threatening to place college out of reach, Segura took a gamble: He applied to the University of Central Arkansas without mentioning his undocumented status at all. “I sent them all my transcripts and everything, and just went under the radar. I was like ‘Wow, I can’t believe that worked.’” He was accepted into the UCA Honor’s College and graduated recently with a bachelor’s degree in physics.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really worry about [deportation], because I’d never seen anybody be deported,” Segura said. “I didn’t understand, but my parents definitely were worried. They didn’t want me to travel out of Hot Springs at all. …For a long time, I didn’t know you could be deported. I mean, I was 7 [when I came to the U.S.] I grew up here. I thought I was just another person who was here. No one else talked about being deported, so I didn’t know that that was a thing that applied to just me, out of all my friends.”