Organizations Prepare for Obama Executive Order in Climate of Uncertainty

Few organizations are prepared for the number of clients who will need legal help following the announcement of Obama's executive action.
Few organizations are prepared for the number of clients who will need legal help following the announcement of Obama's executive action.

Now that the midterm elections are over, the immigrant advocacy community is turning its thoughts back to executive action by President Obama on immigration. The president promised at the beginning of September that, while he would not act before the elections, he would issue an executive order before the end of the year.

Much speculation is out there about when the order will be issued (mid-December is often mooted at the most likely time), and how many people will be protected. A lot of this speculation is of the “looking at tea leaves” sort of an exercise. We really don’t have a lot of solid information to base conclusions on. There is even speculation that an order will not be issued this year at all, with the president choosing to wait until after the run-off of the Louisiana Senate race takes place in January.

I was at meetings this week where immigration service providers discussed their preparations for the surge in immigrants seeking legal assistance when an order is issued. We may only be weeks away from the big day, but the uncertainties about the timing of the order and the number of impacted immigrants have made it difficult for organizations to plan. What we do know is that when the president delivers his speech announcing his program, all of the organizations will be immediately overwhelmed by people seeking help.

Most of the non-profits serving the legal needs of immigrants are smaller now than they were before the recession. Most are also coping with the needs of the Central American children who arrived over the summer. None, to my knowledge, have received any new grant money to hire staff to help out with the surge of people who will be flowing through their doors within hours of any announcement. Given our experiences in the past, any new grants will arrive months or years after the initial surge.

The legal service providers, which are already stretched thin helping immigrants with their day-to-day immigration law needs, will be swamped at first. Most will have to charge fees so they can hire new staff to help people apply for the legalization program, and many are looking at “group processing” models in which groups of immigrants are taught to apply on their own.

Even the reception staff of the immigration law providers will be overwhelmed. At CARECEN, we have already added new telephone lines in anticipation, but we expect that we will still be unable to handle the 500 percent increase in calls we predict we will experience during the first few months. This means that while some immigrants will be able to get in touch with us, others may call many times and only get a busy signal. The legal service providers are looking at developing an online scheduling system to get around the telephone bottleneck, but that is not likely to be ready for at least four months. In addition, many undocumented immigrants have no meaningful access to the Internet.

Legal service providers affiliated with the New York Immigration Coalition are trying to find ways that community groups and churches can help fill the gap in assistance during the first months after an announcement. We expect that there will be a two to four month period between the announcement and when the first applications can be filed. While community groups without lawyers should not provide legal advice, they can help inform immigrants of the requirements of the new program and help them get the documents they need to apply.

Check back regularly on Long Island Wins for updates on what is likely to be the biggest legalization program in the last two decades.

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