Top Five Immigration Stories from 2013

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From the beginning, it was clear that 2013 was going to be a big year for immigration. The results of the 2012 Presidential Election were widely interpreted as a rebuke to Mitt Romney’s enforcement-only “self-deportation” policy, and President Obama’s huge victory among minority communities was seen as a mandate for reform. It seemed, at the beginning of the year, that comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 was inevitable. With the passage of Senate Bill S. 744 in June, Congress got halfway to immigration reform, but couldn’t reach a bipartisan solution in the House.  Despite the House’s failure to act, there were plenty of other memorable immigration moments in 2013.  Among them were the repudiation of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the Supreme Court (and its impact on immigration benefits), the ongoing implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative (DACA), and a range of pro-immigrant measures at the state level which reflect a desire to support the integration of aspiring Americans into their communities.  And, in what promises to be a major factor in 2014, the immigration reform movement fully came into its own this year.

As we see it, here are our top five stories of the year:

1. The Passage of the Senate Bill

The Senate hit the ground running in 2013. By the end of April, the bipartisan “Gang of 8” had produced S.744, a comprehensive reform bill, and by the end of June, it had passed. While the bill was far from perfect –with an extremely flawed “border surge” amendment added on the Senate floor to secure additional Republican votes – it contained a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., the strongest ever version of the DREAM Act, and a new visa designed to meet America’s changing labor needs. The bill emerged from the Senate with bipartisan support, but has been held up by the House of Representatives, who have yet to figure out how to proceed on immigration reform.

2. Pro-immigrant measures sweeping the states

A few years ago, it was almost unthinkable that good immigration news could be coming from the states. This year, however, the states began to lead by advancing positive state laws and policies that help to further integrate immigrant communities into American life. Connecticut, Colorado, and California passed their own versions of the TRUST Act, which limits who state and local officials can hold for possible deportation. Several cities—including Newark, New Orleans; and New York City—also enacted policies to limit when local law enforcement officers detain a person at the request of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

In recent history, only three states allowed people to apply for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status, but by the end of this year, eight more states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, acknowledged the economic and public safety necessity of this step. Further, every state except Arizona and Nebraska allows DACA recipients to receive licenses.  States also expanded access to in-state tuition to undocumented students and just last week, New Jersey  became the latest state to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students. On top of these positive measures, many states and localities created welcoming initiatives directed at encouraging immigrant entrepreneurship and relocation to their communities.

3. The Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA

One of the most exciting stories of the year was the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus granting federal recognition to married same-sex couples. While this was good news for all gay and lesbian couples, it was especially good news for same-sex couples with mixed immigration status, who no longer faced the prospect of having to choose between staying together and living in the United States. In the aftermath of the DOMA decision, USCIS immediately began approving pending applications from eligible same-sex couples.

4. The Implementation of DACA

In 2012, the biggest immigration story was the announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by President Obama. Now, over a year into the program, more than 455,455 applicants have been approved, and those young immigrants are now considered lawfully present. The program has been incredibly successful – allowing “the DACA-mented” to go to school, get jobs, and obtain their driver’s licenses in most states.  However, not all of those eligible have applied, citing reasons such as the filing fees, mistrust of the program, the hope that something better awaits  through immigration reform, or the lack of outreach and education about DACA in their home state.

Next year, as the first recipients begin to renew their DACA status, and as USCIS puts into place a similar policy directed at the family members of military personnel, it will become more and more clear that, while administrative action is a good thing for a lot of people, it is not a permanent fix, and that broader legislative reform is still needed.

5. Immigration Activists Grow Stronger and Bolder

While the top immigration stories tend to revolve around action or inaction at the federal level, the most far-reaching story—and the one that is yet to be fully told—has to be the growth of the pro-reform movement. There was no better example of the movement’s dedication than the Fast for Families, in which four activists undertook a 22-day, water-only fast on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The fasters, sought an end to the separation of families caused by our broken immigration system. They called for comprehensive reform including a pathway to citizenship, and in the process attracted the attention of the national press, members of Congress, the President and First Lady, and countless others. The fast is ongoing, after the original four passed the torch to a new group of fasters, which included Representative Joe Kennedy.

The Fast for Families was by no means the only major action, though. A growing number of sit-ins have been staged at Congressional offices, including the offices of House Speaker Boehner, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. In August, during Congress’s summer recess, hundreds of rallies, actions, and events took place across the country calling for reform. Many activists have been willing to risk arrest in peaceful acts of civil disobedience, and many more have been willing to speak out to their representatives, community, or even to the President himself. Even groups of children have gone to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to pass reform and keep their families together.

Taken together, 2013 was a banner year for the men, women, and children who are committed to immigration reform.  While there is much to note and to celebrate, there is also the constant reminder that failure to reform our laws hurts individuals, families, communities, and the country as a whole. Perhaps in 2014, we will be finally able to put the passage of comprehensive immigration reform at the top of our list of memorable events.

Photo by Sharachats

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