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Immigration Activists Hope To Maintain Momentum For Reform


Recent terrorist attacks have intensified criticism of U.S. immigration policy, and next year, there will be a major ruling affecting immigration from the Supreme Court. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it could have an impact on the presidential campaign.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Scores of anxious-looking parents are lining up at the Christ the Light Cathedral for an immigration workshop in Oakland, Calif. They're here to help their equally nervous teenagers apply for an Obama administration program that would temporarily protect from deportation kids brought to this country illegally. It's called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. One of the parents is Benito Hernandez. In his polo shirt and neatly pressed khaki pants, Hernandez looks like a typical suburban dad. His family is among the first in line.

BENITO HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Hernandez says, "when we first learned about DACA, we were thrilled. I hope our daughter will feel more secure at school." But there are still a lot of questions about the future of the DACA program. It could change when a new president is elected. Virtually all of the Republican presidential candidates have pledged to end it. At this point, about three quarters of a million young people have been granted deportation protection, and immigration proponents looking ahead to next year say they have momentum on their side. Christopher Martinez is chief program officer for Catholic Charities of the East Bay.

CHRISTOPHER MARTINEZ: If a million people apply for DACA, they are not going to take away the right - that benefit from a million people. That would be political suicide.

GONZALES: But would it? That idea could face a tough test in 2016. President Obama has tried to expand his program to protect other young people from deportation, as well as about 4 million parents with kids who are U.S. citizens. But the president's executive actions were blocked in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear the case and issue a ruling by June. That's right in the middle of the presidential campaign. Marc Rosenblum is the deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

MARC ROSENBLUM: So that would put probably the most controversial piece of Obama's immigration agenda, you know, very much in play.

GONZALES: And it's not just the president's agenda at issue. Consider this. There's an ongoing surge of Central American miners crossing the southern border, and 27 Republican governors continue to oppose the entry of Syrian refugees into their respective states. And after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Congress is tightening visa requirements.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: You know, I cannot remember a time when there was so much talk about immigration in so many different aspects of the immigration issue.

GONZALES: Jessica Vaughan is the director of policy studies at the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates immigration limits.

VAUGHAN: Everything from border security to guest worker programs to the refugee program to national security concerns and how we vet immigrants to marriage fraud. It all seems to be in the forefront of public discussion.

GONZALES: But pro-immigration activists say much of the debate is dominated right now by Republican candidates trying to appeal to a conservative party base. Lynn Tramonte is the deputy director of America's Voice, a group advocating for an immigration overhaul. She says come election time in 2016, the immigration debate could energize a different group of voters.

LYNN TRAMONTE: You've got the Latino, Asian and immigrant vote plus their children who are aging into voting right, saying, this is about my grandmother; this is about my mom. And that's the group that's going to be motivated to vote.

GONZALES: Tramonte and Vaughan agree on one thing. It could take an election for the country to decide which way it's going on immigration. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
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