[DRUM press conference at Jackson Heights, Queens. Nadira Kashem (Second from left) with her daughter Naushain Tarannum (right), shared her fear of losing her husband to deportation. | Photo Courtesy: DRUM]
Nushain Tarannum was 12 years old when her father Abul Kashem—who came to the United States on a visit visa in 1992—was pulled out of his workplace by immigration officers and arrested February 2012. His crime: he lacked proper documents to work.
However, for young Tarannum, her father’s arrest barely made sense. She couldn’t comprehend why her father, who had no criminal record, was taken away from her. It was the first time Tarannum felt unsafe in her own country—and the first time she heard words like “illegal” and “undocumented” used to describe her father.
“When I was young, I wasn’t aware of my dad’s immigration status until the day he got arrested on February 8, 2012. That’s when I became aware of immigration and how broken our system really is,” Tarannum said at a press conference organized by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a South Asian immigrant rights organization. Tarannum spoke in Jackson Heights, Queens on Friday last week, following the Supreme Court’s deadlock on Obama’s immigration policy.
She spent days trying to make sense why her mother cried every night and why her father couldn’t come home. Instead of going to her school and leading a carefree childhood, Tarannum’s life circled courthouses and local immigrant rights organizations. Fear became her constant companion. Apart from the emotional and psychological trauma of losing a parent, she and her family faced the perilous financial situation as the sole breadwinner was taken away from them. This incident roiled her life.
And, even though he is now out of prison, Kashem isn’t free.
“He has deportation orders and can be deported back to Bangladesh anytime. We are living in constant fear of losing him, and we cannot do anything about it despite the fact that rest of us (Tarranum, her mother, Nadira Kashem, and her brother) are U.S. citizens,” she said. “How can my country not allow a father to be with his children?”
Tarannum and thousands of other families like hers wrestle with the answer to this question every single day.
President Obama’s 2014 executive orders to grant up to five million undocumented immigrants protection from deportation through Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) could have been the answer Tarannum was seeking. His measures would not only have shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation but also made them eligible for work permits and driver’s licenses in some states.
However, last week’s Supreme Court split decision on the constitutionality of Obama’s executive actions put families like Tarannum’s back in limbo. The justices’ one-sentence opinion marked a major setback for the Obama administration, effectively killing the plan for the duration of Obama’s presidency.
Soon after President Obama announced the executive orders in 2014, it was quickly challenged in court by Republican-governed Texas and 25 other states that argued on the constitutionality of Obama’s executive orders, that his unilateral executive action bypassed the Republican-led Congress. A lower court sided with the states and issued a temporary injunction against implementing the initiatives. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas last November upheld the ruling; the Obama Administration then appealed the lower court’s decision to the Supreme Court. However, Thursday’s deadlock upheld the injunction by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and crumbled Obama’s legacy on immigration.
The decision elicited strong reactions from lawmakers. In a press release, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) expressed their disappointment with the decision.
“There’s no doubt that the United States needs an immigration policy that makes our country safe and our economy strong,” Congressman Ami Bera said. “Now more than ever, Democrats and Republicans must work together to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that secures our borders, allows our economy to grow, and ensures accountability for new American immigrants.”
“I am hopeful that the President’s actions will eventually be upheld, letting millions of our immigrant friends and neighbors come out of the dark and become full members of our society,” Congressman Mike Honda, CAPAC immigration task force chair, added.
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and other immigration rights organizations also decried the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The prolonged and unnecessary legal challenge to these common-sense immigration programs comes at the expense of millions of immigrant youth and their families,” SAALT activists said in an issued statement. According to the statistics released by SAALT, India ranks among the top ten origin countries with individuals eligible for DACA and ranks third among individuals eligible for DAPA. Nearly 200,000 Indian and Pakistani individuals are eligible for DAPA and 23,000 Indian and Pakistani youth eligible for DACA and expanded DACA.
“Today’s ruling is a catalyst for the next Congress to act and ensure that all immigrants have a path to the full benefits of citizenship and allow us to live up to our core values of fairness and opportunity,” Suman Raghunathan, SAALT’s executive director, said in a press release issued by the organization soon after the ruling. At the press conference last Friday, organized by DRUM, a grassroots organization fighting for rights of undocumented immigrants, fear and frustration among activists, immigrants was visible, especially with the current political climate and the anti-immigrant sentiments and rhetoric.
“This (Obama’s executive order) program was not something that became a benefit and then taken away,” Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s executive director, said. “We are no different now than we were two days ago. If we look at the record number of people deported by this administration, the abuses and detention, we do see anti-immigrant sentiment and policies on a rise. And that’s why it is more and more important for us to organize.”
Michele Lampach, founder and executive director of Unlocal—a city based immigration legal services and education organization—stated that although DAPA and DACA were important, what is needed is comprehensive immigration reform including all undocumented immigrants.
“We are living under the 1996 immigration laws. There is a perception that laws are always changing but really the actual laws that exist, called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA), are incredibly unjust laws,” Lampac said. “And although DAPA and DACA were important, we always need to be pushing for more than that.”
Lampach, who since 2014 gave legal consultations to about 500 people who could have been eligible for DAPA or expanded DACA, is now in the process of delivering the news to hopeful immigrants “that they are not eligible, again, for anything even though they may have been here for 10 to 15 years have U.S. citizen children and spouses and paid taxes.”
The case now returns to the district courts where it will be adjudicated based on its merits, which, Lampach said, did not yet happen. She, however, is not hopeful that the law will pass.
“In the fifth circuit, we will lose again because we have a judge who hates immigrants,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter until we have new Supreme Court justice and that really depends on who is sworn into the presidency.”
Additionally, Lampach highlighted what President Obama can do until the end of his Presidency in December.
“What President Obama can do right now is to stop deportation, stop raiding mothers and children who came from Central America fleeing persecution,” she said. “And we can try and stop the private prison detention system which literally in the budget requires that 34,000 immigrants are detained on a daily basis, and that goes to private contractors. They are benefiting from detaining immigrants, making billions of dollars per year.”
In the coming days, 20 organizations and immigrants across the country will call for a moratorium on all deportations.