Obama, Romney Differ in Approach to Immigration Problems

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The Seren family gathered around the TV in the living room of their home in Huntington Station on Long Island on a recent Saturday night.

Nestor, 32, was watching soccer with his wife, Mildred, 34. Their 6-year-old daughter, Daniela, a first grader whose favorite subject is math, was running around the house. 

It was a typical relaxed evening, a change from only a few months ago when they didn't know whether Nestor would be deported. Now he stands a chance of getting a green card.  

"Obama changed our lives," Mildred said.  

The Seren family significantly benefited from the changes in the immigration policy the Obama administration has put in place.

In June, President Barack Obama announced another policy change — deferred action — allowing unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to apply for a two-year deportation deferral and work permits.

But Obama has said he remains committed to passing a comprehensive immigration reform — legislation that would combine stricter enforcement, changes to the visa system and legalization of unauthorized immigrants.

GOP challenger Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for implementing temporary measures. He said he plans to fix the country's broken immigration system by putting in place permanent solutions. Romney proposed fixes to the visa system and opposes any policy that would allow unauthorized immigrants currently in the country to “cut in line.”

The two candidates propose different solutions for the problems of the country's immigration system. But recent developments suggest what might be possible when the new Congress and president begin their terms next year.

A Family's Life Changed

The Serens are a mixed-status family. Daniela was born here, Mildred is a naturalized citizen and Nestor is undocumented.

He was on his way to being deported, but he got to stay because a change in immigration policy under the Obama administration earlier this year allowed unauthorized immigrants who haven’t committed crimes and who have strong ties to the country to remain in the U.S.  

"I’m lucky ‘cause some people, they don’t the luck that I have," Nestor said."Now I’m feeling better."

But he is still in legal limbo, without a work permit. If Seren returned to his native Honduras now to apply for a green card as a spouse of a U.S. citizen, a 10-year return ban would be triggered, because he’s spent more than a year in the U.S. illegally.

He could soon, however, benefit from another Obama policy change — a provisional waiver. It is expected to come into effect before the end of the year.  

If Nestor and Mildred show his absence would cause her extreme hardship, he can get this new waiver in the U.S. His attorney, David Sperling, says that means the 10-year ban will be waived and that Nestor and will almost certainly be approved for a visa when he goes to Honduras. 

"This is an answer to the plight of hundreds of thousands undocumented immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens," Sperling said.

In Washington, A Different View of Obama

Immigration advocates in Washington support the changes in the policy the Serens have benefited from, and particularly the president’s decision to allow young unauthorized immigrants to get work permits.

But Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, is quick to criticize Obama.

“We’re not happy at all with what’s been done,” Wilkes said. “The president, unfortunately, he chose not to pursue immigration reform.”

Wilkes also pointed out more than 1.5 million people have been deported during the last four years. The president said his administration has focused on deporting criminals, but advocates argue that people with no criminal records have also been deported.

Republicans have also been vocal in their criticism of the president. They say Obama’s policy changes that have helped unauthorized immigrants are his attempts to win over Hispanic voters while circumventing Congress.

Lamar Smith, a Congressman from Texas and chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, in an op-ed on deferred action for U.S. News and World Report in July wrote: “This move by President Obama is clearly a political ploy announced a few months before an election."

Republican Plan for Immigration

But some Republicans think the party’s position on immigration could alienate the Hispanics, the country’s fastest growing minority, and say there’s a need to offer their solutions for the problems of the immigration system.

"I think there's a sense in Congress among Republicans that they can't say no to this issue forever, that there are advantages to being upfront on it and having some momentum and owning some pieces of it," said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an organization that advocates for immigration reform on behalf of employers.   

Jacoby said Republicans are interested in incremental changes to the legal system, but not the big comprehensive reform Obama said he favors.

"We’ve seen a lot of Republicans introducing measures that were small, rifle shot, targeted measures to fix this or that aspect of the legal immigration system," said Jacoby. 

One of those recently introduced measures was a bill that would give green cards to those who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. It didn’t pass, but experts say the two parties are not too far apart on the issue and that they might come to an agreement.

Romney’s immigration strategy also includes green cards for graduates in the STEM fields, and changes in the visa system for temporary agricultural and other seasonal workers, raising caps on visas for highly skilled workers and speeding up processing times for immediate family members of citizens and legal permanent residents.

“It’s time to put the politics aside, and I will actually reform the immigration system to make it work for the people of America,” Romney told Univision in September.

What precisely will happen next year depends whether two parties will be able to reach a compromise. It also depends on will control the House and the Senate and who will be in the White House. 

Back on Long Island, Mildred Seren plans to cast a ballot for Obama when she gets to vote for the first time in November.  

"I support Obama for president,” she said. “He helped us a lot.”