Getting it right


President Obama’s executive order on immigration could benefit hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in South Florida, but turning potential into reality will demand a lot of hard work and a lot of patience.

The president’s action is the beginning of a process, not the end. It’s important to get the next part right if any benefit is to be gained from the decision.

The executive order came as welcome news to advocates of reform who have worked tirelessly for positive change. But here’s the rub: This action won’t automatically transform anyone’s legal status overnight. Even the temporary measures approved by the president — only Congress can make them permanent — are a long way from fulfillment.

▪ For openers, the Department of Homeland Security says it does not expect to begin receiving applications until 180 days have elapsed following the president’s Nov. 20 announcement. That’s a six-month period, at least, for all immigrants who might benefit from the White House order to remain at risk of random detention and deportation, just as they were before the president acted.

▪ A further area of concern is the potential for duping immigrants who are desperate to find help. The prevalence of immigration scams, especially when new actions are in the news, prompted the federal government to issue a warning on the DHS immigration-reform homepage: “Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available.”

▪ The warning should resonate loudly in South Florida, a mecca for scammers of all kinds. Immigrants from Latin America are particularly easy marks for so-called notarios because notaries play a much larger role in their home countries than notaries do in this country. Immigration activists say these unscrupulous figures often charge high prices and offer no real services. In most instances, they are unable to provide genuine legal representation and the kinds of services that only members of the Bar can offer.

▪ The president’s order eliminated the controversial Secure Communities program, a flawed project that allowed local police forces to hold immigrant criminal suspects past their scheduled release dates. The program may have been fine in theory, but not so good in practice. Hundreds of legal citizens were mistakenly detained under the program. More than half of those eventually deported under Secure Communities had only minor criminal infractions, or no record at all. In its place, the Obama administration has come up with the Priority Enforcement Program, which sounds a lot like Secure Communities. The new effort also involves the cooperation of local police forces. If the government can’t execute this program better than it did Secure Communities, it won’t be much of an improvement.

The executive order has aroused great interest in immigrant communities. It could improve the lives of millions of families. Unfortunately, the demand for information will overwhelm the perennially under-funded and under-staffed agencies that offer help to immigrants at times like these. Ideally Congress would step in with additional funding and support, but no one should hold their breath waiting for that.

That leaves it up to strapped local governments and others with the proper resources to reach out with financial aid and other types of support to those who play an indispensable role in securing the rights of immigrants.