By Mike Lillis - 03/26/15 06:30 PM EDT
House Democrats are intensifying their efforts to help immigrants in the country illegally to enroll in President Obama's new programs easing deportations.
The lawmakers, representing districts nationwide, have launched a new outreach campaign designed both to grease the application process and prevent those eligible from being deported before the programs go into effect.
Behind Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), the Democrats are issuing "emergency cards" to potential participants and asking them to present those cards in the event they're detained by an immigration official before the court issues are resolved.
"If you are ... put in harm's way for deportation, tell them you've got the documents, tell them you can prove that you're established," Gutiérrez said Thursday. "Because if there is one thing I am clear about, it's that [Homeland Security] Secretary Jeh Johnson and the president of the United States, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaLots of (just) talk about 'draining the swamp' America’s Eastern European mess Obama promotes new airline regulations MORE, don't want you deported."
The emergency cards are part of a new "toolkit" Gutiérrez and many other Democrats are distributing at outreach forums they're hosting in their districts, both over the long Easter recess and beyond.
The lawmakers emphasize that, in lieu of Obama's executive actions, they want Congress to consider comprehensive reform legislation. But with House GOP leaders refusing to take up such proposals, Democrats are backing the president's unilateral moves as a way to keep immigrant families together.
"It is time for us to bring a bill to the floor," Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Thursday. "But in the interim, this packet allows people to understand their rights in this country pursuant to the president's order.
"If Republicans disagree with the president's immigration policies," he added, "they have an alternative: bring a bill to the floor to change that."
At issue is a pair of executive actions launched by Obama shortly after last November's midterm elections. One, known as DAPA, would halt deportations and offer work permits to the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. The other would expand Obama's 2012 program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, to a greater number of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as kids.
Twenty-five states have joined Texas in suing the administration over the programs, arguing they mark a case of executive overreach that would saddle their budgets with exorbitant new costs.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, of Brownsville, Texas, found that the states had a legitimate basis to bring their case. Hanen has yet to weigh the merits of the challenge, but his initial decision prevents the administration from moving forward with the programs — including the processing of applications — until he does.
"The [Department of Homeland Security] has adopted a new rule that substantially changes both the status and employability of millions," Judge Hanen wrote. "These changes go beyond mere enforcement or even non-enforcement of this nation’s immigration scheme.”
The Democrats have hammered that decision, saying Obama's executive actions will eventually be vindicated as they move through the courts.
"We are on the right side of history, and this court decision is just a bump in the road," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
But the lawmakers are also worried that Hanen's decision will confuse those hoping to enroll in the programs and discourage them from gathering the documents required of the application.
"There's uncertainty across the country about what that court decision in Texas means," Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said Thursday. "People have great faith that DACA and DAPA will eventually take effect. But on the practical side, what needs to happen for families is that they understand what they need to be doing … right now."
Gutiérrez's "toolkit" is designed to provide that understanding. The six-page pamphlet — about the size of a Chinese take-out menu — lists both the eligibility guidelines for the DACA and DAPA programs, and the specific documents the immigrants need to submit to participate.
"Even though you cannot apply yet for these programs, you can still prepare," Gutiérrez writes in the opening message.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) suggested Congress needs similar guidance in its approach to legislating the issue.
"Maybe we ought to work on a toolkit to teach members of Congress how we can pass a bill on comprehensive immigration reform," he quipped, "because all the elements are staring us in the face."