Meet The Undocumented Immigrants Whose Futures Now Hinge On President Obama

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

Undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas (center) at the #1Of11Million campaign

A prominent journalist was among 11 undocumented immigrants at a press conference Wednesday, pressuring President Obama to spare millions of immigrants from deportation. Obama is expected to release an executive order after Labor Day that could prioritize deportation reprieve for some of the undocumented population. And immigration advocates like Jose Antonio Vargas are hoping that the President will “go big” and expand work authorization to most of the country’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, as he had done with the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for qualified immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31.

Before the event, Vargas and the other immigrants submitted applications for deferred action to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s office to mark the official launch of the national #1of11Million campaign. They also released a legal memorandum in support of deferred action — a form of prosecutorial discretion — that gives law enforcement agencies the power to decide who to investigate, arrest, detain, charge and prosecute. Vargas and others are asking Johnson for a four-year deferral. According to the press release, the event sponsored by Vargas’ own Define American and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) was meant to “start a conversation and humanize the complexities of immigration in America.”

Those present at the press conference were selected to represent a wide range of undocumented immigrants who do not have legal status, including: a grandmother who is now the legal guardian of three grandchildren after their parents were deported five years ago; a German entrepreneur who came to the country in 1986; a woman charged with identity theft after getting arrested by the anti-immigrant Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio; a honors college student; a reconstruction worker from New Orleans; a son of a diplomat that worked at the United Nations; and a man who works at his parents’ grocery store. ThinkProgress interviewed some of the immigrants who were not eligible for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, including Aly Wane (37), Michaela Graham (52), and Jong-Min You (34).

An immigrant from Senegal, Wane was the son of a diplomat who worked at the United Nations. He lost his legal status after his mother’s tragic death. “I’m technically a DREAMer under the last Senate bill’s version,” Wane said. “Being undocumented is a very strange experience… Growing up as a black man in the country is a brutal experience. It can feel isolating, especially in African and Caribbean communities. There’s really a culture of ‘you don’t stand out, you don’t push the envelope too much’ so that’s probably why there isn’t as much representation.”

He added, “I hope the president considers as many categories as possible.”

Michaela Graham (center) talks about her experiences as an undocumented immigrant from Germany.

Michaela Graham (center) talks about her experiences as an undocumented immigrant from Germany.

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

With blond hair and blue eyes, Graham does not look like the “typical” undocumented immigrant. An immigrant from Germany, Graham’s H-1B visa lapsed and she fell out of status after an unscrupulous attorney took her money without filing her application. A real estate investor by trade, Graham said, “Right now they [may be] considering [granting deportation reprieve to] DREAMers’ parents, but there are many more of us who don’t fit into that category who would be a benefit to the country. It’s the cream of the crop that comes here, regardless of whether it’s a migrant farmer or a CEO of a company. The country is built on entrepreneurship.”

You, an immigrant from South Korea, told ThinkProgress that his goal is to become a judge, but that he was never able to gain the necessary experience, including undoubtedly taking the state bar. He has been in the country for 33 years — the longest out of the group.”You feel like an invisible person,” he said. “[Our] lives are more than a nine-digit magic number– a social security number.” He hopes that Obama would expand deferred action to the vast majority of the undocumented population, but he acknowledges that a more permanent solution through Congress is necessary. He currently manages his family’s grocery store.

The President has a variety of options to give temporary legal presence to millions of undocumented immigrants, like the individuals present at the press conference. While Congress makes the laws that he enforces, he retains the legal authority to decide how the law is enforced through what is known as prosecutorial discretion. As part of that power, he can grant different forms of administrative relief. Deferred action could allow the government to designate some cases as “lower priority,” as Obama has already done with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Parole in place can be used to allow some individuals to stay in the country because of urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit. And the President can authorize deferred enforced departure, which would designate immigrants from specific countries as protected from removal, through his power to conduct foreign relations.