Whatever the details of President Obama’s planned immigration overhaul, the stakes are particularly high for California.
The state has the largest number of people who are in the country illegally, and many have especially deep roots.
The changes could bring some form of legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants here and benefit two of the state’s leading industries: technology and agriculture. They will also undoubtedly leave some immigrants out — dividing families and the immigrant community into those who qualify for relief and those who don’t.
Although it is still unclear precisely who will be covered by the new policy, which Obama is scheduled to unveil in an address to the nation Thursday, those with strong ties to the United States stand to benefit most.
Immigrant advocates who have been briefed on the plan say it is likely to include work permits and a temporary stay of deportation for those who have lived in the U.S. for at least five or 10 years and have U.S.-born children.
The number of people in California who meet those criteria is high, experts say.
According to a recent report by USC, roughly half of the estimated 2.6 million California residents who are in the country without permission have been in the state at least 10 years. A study by the Pew Research Center found that California has the second-highest proportion of K-12 students with at least one parent who lacks legal status, after Nevada.
“It’s likely those U.S.-born children are going to be the key to whatever protections are offered,” said demographer Jeff Passel, who co-wrote the Pew report. “Because California has such a high percentage of those children, it’s probably going to have a higher percentage of unauthorized immigrants who would qualify for relief.”
The state’s technology and agriculture industries could benefit from Obama’s planned executive action. He is said to favor changes that would expand opportunities for legal immigrants who have high-tech backgrounds and increase the number of high-skilled immigrants allowed to work in the country. He was also considering a possible extension of a guest worker program for farmworkers.
“Those industries are really important for the state of California,” said Manuel Pastor, director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC, noting that half the state’s agricultural workers are in the country illegally.
Across the state, immigrant advocacy groups are gearing up for Obama’s announcement — and the work that will follow.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles is hiring extra staff to help the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the Los Angeles area who might qualify for relief.
They will have to file applications with the government and will probably have to prove with bills or other official documents that they have been U.S. residents for a certain period of time, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the group.
He said his organization is planning a large event next month at the Los Angeles Convention Center to educate immigrants about the new policies — and warn them not to hire inexperienced or deceptive attorneys or notaries to help them with their cases.
“It’s a million opportunities for fraudulent organizations to take their money and run,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera, whose group plans to send a busload of immigrants to Nevada on Friday to hear Obama speak to high school students about his policies, said California’s immigrants are conflicted.
“There is excitement but there’s disappointment at the same time because we know that there are a number of our loved ones who will potentially benefit from this relief and many who will be left out,” he said. “It underscores the issue that this is a temporary solution, not the permanent solution that we’ve been fighting for for so many years.”
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said Obama’s new policies will create two tiers of immigrants. Among those who may not be granted relief under Obama’s plan are those who don’t have children, including many in the gay, lesbian and transgender community, as well as those who are living here with children who were not born in the U.S.
“In a family you’re going to have uncles that will be celebrating and aunts who will be left out,” said Alvarado, who said his group will continue to fight for a more inclusive policy.
A bill passed this year by the Senate and backed by Obama would have laid out a path to citizenship for most of the immigrants in the country illegally.
House Republican leaders refused to act on that bill, prompting Obama to use his executive authority to ease deportations. Republicans have pledged to fight any executive action on immigration.
In California, groups that advocate stricter enforcement of immigration policies are readying themselves for a fight.
Jo Wideman, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, said her group is planning advertisements to oppose Obama’s changes. She said the campaign may focus on U.S. workers who can’t find jobs — a demographic she says will suffer if many people in the country without permission are given work permits.
“The number of Californians who will be out of luck finding work will increase further if millions of illegal aliens are not only free from deportation, but given work permits,” she said.
Wideman said her group is also worried that Obama’s announcement could prompt a surge of new immigration that would disproportionately hurt California.
“California has routinely received more immigrants, both legal and illegal, than any other states,” she said. “And Californians have always borne the brunt of the problems.”
For Dulce Saavedra, a U.S. citizen whose mother came to California from Mexico illegally, Obama’s announcement is a chance for her family to live without fear.
Saavedra, 21, of Santa Ana, said her mother has been deeply afraid of being deported since her husband, Saavedra’s father, was deported five years ago.
A few years ago, her mother sat Saavedra and her three siblings around the kitchen table and laid out a contingency plan in case she was detained by immigration authorities and ordered removed.
“If I get deported, I’m taking your little brother and sister with me, and I will raise them in Mexico,” she said, and then looked at Saavedra and her oldest son. “You and your brother can stay and go to school here. I want to make sure you can be here and continue to pay off our home.”
Still, Saavedra is troubled by the prospect that others — including her friends and extended family — may be left out.
“I think it would divide our community,” she said of Obama’s plan. “How is it fair that some people get covered and some people don’t?”