By Attorneys Gregory J. Boult, Robert L. Reeves & Nancy E. Miller
As the New Year begins, there is hope that comprehensive immigration reform will legalize the status of millions, thus permanently uniting them with their families here in the United States. Unfortunately, the year has not begun on a positive note and the outlook for passage is not good. As 2015 came to a close, the Department of Homeland Security revealed plans to physically deport thousands of Central Americans while moving to stringently enforce the Real ID Act in a manner which could affect the ability of many individuals, both documented and undocumented, from entering federal facilities and boarding commercial airliners even with a valid state-issued driver’s license. Is this a portent of things to come? It is certainly possible.
For decades, the violence from civil wars and gang violence in Central America has led to an influx of individuals seeking refuge in the United States. While many of these individuals have obtained permanent or temporary status in the United States, countless more have not. Some continue to reside in the United States having been ordered deported by an Immigration Judge, desperate not to return home. In a rather unprecedented move, and following on the heels of the recent arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America, the Department of Homeland Security has formally announced that it has specifically targeted certain Central Americans for physical deportation.
DHS is currently focusing on those individuals from Central America who have remained in the United States despite having been ordered deported by an Immigration Judge. Some fear being harmed if they return home; others are waiting for their family petitions to become current. While some of these individuals have been ordered deported due to criminal convictions or other serious immigration violations, many of these people were ordered deported solely because they remained beyond their visas or entered the United States without papers. And the result of this newly-announced policy has already sent shock waves across many Central American communities in the United States.
Adding to these shock waves is the very aggressive stance which the Department of Homeland Security has taken regarding enforcement of the driver’s license provision of the Real ID Act. Congress passed the Real ID Act in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks after 9/11. One element of the law was a federal mandate pertaining to security features on all state-issued drivers’ licenses. While many states have complied with these requirements, others have not. For those states which have not, privacy concerns have proven a central concern. Now, in an apparent effort to force full compliance, the Department of Homeland Security is raising the stakes against those states which have not complied. The threat now looms that non-compliant identification – including drivers’ licenses and ID cards – may be deemed legally insufficient proof of identity to enter a federal facility, and may even preclude the use of non-compliant identification to board a commercial airline flight. Such a policy would affect United States citizens and others lawfully present in the United States as well as thousands of individuals who have secured valid and lawful driver’s licenses although they are without legal status in the United States.
As was very-well-publicized, last year California began to issue drivers’ licenses to individuals residing in the state without legal status. Should the Department of Homeland Security proceed as planned, many of the benefits which have attached to this historic program could be notably curtailed. In one irony, these perfectly valid forms of identification under state law could lose all significance for those seeking to utilize these documents in an effort to legalize their status in the United States. If these forms of identification, which are valid under state law, are deemed legally insufficient to enter a federal facility, individuals could be prevented from entering the very facilities where their immigration interviews are being held.
No matter how limited, any step forward on the path to immigration reform is welcomed. However, this year has not begun on a strong note with certain Central Americans being targeted for physical deportation from the United States, and some state-issued driver’s licenses appearing not as valid as some had hoped. Fortunately, for many, there may be options available – even if an Immigration Judge has issued an order of deportation. Regardless, the New Year presents a fresh opportunity to consult with an experienced and knowledgeable immigration attorney to see what options may exist as the law now stands. As the old saying goes, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. However, one can only do so by knowing all of their available options.