While Congressional leaders debate over the best way to tackle immigration reform, community groups, churches, some lawmakers and even schools have been readying to help immigrants take advantage of whatever relief comes.
The hustle is on particularly in light of recent reports that the president could take executive action as soon as next week in ways that would make it possible for immigrants not here legally to apply for temporary work permits and to be shielded from deportation.
One place where executive action is certain to have impact is in Los Angeles. California has the state’s largest undocumented population, estimated at 2.45 million in 2012 by Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.
Steven Zimmer, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, said the district is borrowing on the experience of 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform law that granted legal status to about 3 million immigrants not legally in the U.S., as well as on recent work helping young people apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA.
“The challenge sometimes with DACA and whatever the guidelines for executive action is that there has been so much fear amongst families that are undocumented or have mixed documented status in their families,” Zimmer said. “When you have fear of being found you don’t like to sign things. When we have this executive action, the proof is what you signed,” said Zimmer, explaining families would need documents to show they have been here for years.
Often parents sign forms for education requirements, lunch programs, vaccinations or even permission slips for field trips. Those forms can help families show they were in the country at a certain time.
Zimmer said help from schools is particularly important in districts such as his, which is not in the heart of Los Angeles' Hispanic community yet has many families from Oaxaca, Mexico. There is not as much of an immigrant support network in close proximity to them as if they lived in other parts of the city, he said.
A high priority for many of the groups is to prevent immigrants from being defrauded by scammers or misinformed by well-meaning friends and family who don’t have the expertise to navigate immigration’s byzantine system.
A group of evangelical churches formed The Immigration Alliance to help immigrants through any coming processes. The churches have 31 church-based legal service centers and have been ramping up those centers “knowing that the potential legislation or executive action could seriously tax the current legal structure that is out there,” said Damon Schroeder, the alliance’s executive director.
"Although we have only 31 church-based locations right now, this is a strong increase from just three years ago, and we believe the need is there for The Immigration Alliance to develop as many as 1,000 of these church-based centers in the next three to five years," Schroeder said. There are a total of 28,500 churches in the alliance.
Groups are trying to make sure that churches, schools and community groups and offices become the go-to places for immigrants. Some are seeking certification from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) as authorized providers of immigration services.
“Our concern is people being taken advantage of or fraudulent notarios (notaries). That’s part of what we are trying to do is to make sure people have accurate information and they have trustworthy and BIA-accredited sites,” Schroeder said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., has joined with a coalition of offices, religious, business and community groups and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to get ahead of what may come. Gutierrez has posted on his congressional website examples of documents that people may want to start collecting, warning that nothing has been yet announced.
He said the Illinois group, IL is Ready, would like to create a template that can be used across the country to help others prepare immigrants or take them through application processes.
“What we’ve learned from DACA is that filling out the form is not the hard part, it’s putting together the documentation that supports that petition for administrative relief,” Gutierrez said. But he warned, “Don’t get conned. Don’t get ripped off. Beware of people who will sell you something.”
A big difference between now and the experience of those who were around in 1986 is that a new array of communities have experienced growth in immigration populations. In many new immigrant communities, a legal structure does not exist, giving churches a far more important role in integrating immigrants and assisting them.
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said preparations with his churches have been going on for about two years after the most recent immigration reform legislation was approved in the Senate in June 2013, only for the issue to go nowhere in the House.
“We’ve been telling our pastors to tell their people to get their documents ready, to make sure they are up to date,” Salguero said. “We are telling them to have your portfolio, sus papeles, archives, documentos," (your papers, files, documents).
More than anything, Salguero said, churches and groups helping immigrants want to see relief for the immigrant families, even if it comes through executive action.
“This is a moral, spiritual issue for us,” Salguero said.