When President Obama announced in November 2014 that he would use his executive power to help many immigrants stay in the United States with their families, we immediately heard about the positive impact that this change would have on Latinos and their families.
It was well-reported that up to five million immigrants would benefit from the President’s bold action, but little was shared about the impact on the 400,000 Asian immigrants, including South Asians, who also received relief under this executive action.
Two of the new programs announced—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA)—will allow some immigrants to live and work legally in the United States in three-year increments without fear of deportation and separation from their loved ones. Undocumented immigrants from India are among the largest beneficiaries of this executive action, with an estimated 171,000 people eligible to benefit from these two programs.
Many Indian American families are unable to access immigration options available through the family-based legal immigration system because they are unlawfully present in the United States, and require a waiver for this technical violation before they can be granted lawful status. Generally, the waiver requires that applicants undergo prolonged family separation by going back to U.S. consulates in their countries of origin without any guarantee that a waiver would be granted. Once outside the United States, applicants who fail to get a waiver trigger the 10 year bar for unlawful presence and can no longer immigrate lawfully. To remedy this, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will expand an existing program that allows certain family members of lawful permanent residents and United States citizens to apply for the waiver and gain approval in the United States before they have to depart to attend visa interviews at U.S. consulates abroad.
Thousands of Indian citizens also stand to benefit from the changes made to the employment-based immigration system. Persons on H-1B visas would soon be allowed greater flexibility to change jobs without losing legal status, which would reduce the uncertainty and fears that prevent many qualified foreign nationals from seeking better job opportunities and promotions. Additionally, the DHS is finalizing new rules to give certain H-1B spouses, who are on H-4 visas, employment authorization to work in the United States, a step that will benefit thousands of Indian women, who are currently unable to work outside the home in the United States despite the fact that they have legal status. Moreover, under the President’s plan, DHS will expand options for foreign-born entrepreneurs to immigrate to the United States which should also benefit Indian investors. Taken together, these ongoing changes provide more financial security to South Asian immigrants and their families in the United States.
The changes will also benefit many young Indian students who come to the United States to pursue their education and acquire the skills they need to advance their careers.
Approximately 79% of Indians on F and M student visas pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Obama Administration plans to propose changes to expand and strengthen the existing Optional Practical Training (OPT) program in order to allow these students to remain in the United States for a longer period to receive the skills they need to further their education.
These executive actions are welcome changes to the broken immigration system but they leave out many, including undocumented immigrants who do not have family members in the United States that can sponsor them, previously deported family members, persons with minor criminal records, mothers and children in detention, and community members who are still at risk of deportation.
The action also failed to address a priority issue for Asian Americans: the decades-long visa backlog. More than 1.8 million people from Asian countries, especially the Philippines, India, Vietnam and China, are waiting 20-plus years for a family-sponsored visa to unite with loved ones in the United States. While Congress has to ultimately act on some sort of immigration package, as it turns out, under existing laws, the President can continue to take broad executive action to provide some relief for those trapped in the family-visa backlog. As such, the White House has established a taskforce to study what changes can be made to the legal immigration system administratively.
President Obama’s action on immigration is a historic victory for immigrants and their allies. It is the result of courageous individuals who fasted, prayed, stopped buses and organized to pressure the President to stop deportations and otherwise take action to reform our broken immigration system. Our fight is not over. We continue to work with the Obama Administration to ensure that those who are left out of these reforms can be helped by less aggressive detention and deportation policies, and modernizing the legal immigration system.
Prerna Lal is an immigration staff attorney and the 2014-2016 NAPABA Law Foundation Partners and In-House Counsel Community Law Fellow at Advancing Justice | AAJC based in Washington D.C. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.