Last November, President Obama announced a major executive action on immigration—a plan that would offer temporary legal status and deportation relief to millions of immigrants who live in the country without documents. That’s big news for residents of Jackson. In the past few decades, the town’s Latino immigrant population has skyrocketed from basically zero—to about 30 percent of the community. As Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports, these changes to immigration law could bring new opportunities to Jackson’s working class immigrants—and the employers who hire them.
It’s standing room only at Jackson’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. Hundreds of Latino immigrants are here for an info-session on the President’s new immigration policies.
Twenty-seven-year-old Sandra Chavez understands the excitement in the room. Her family moved from Mexico to Jackson without documents when she was a baby. Just a couple of years ago, she got a temporary work permit thanks to an immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Before that, her options were limited.
“It was hard because we did not get good work, says Chavez. “What I did was a hotel—housekeeping. I never had any possibilities to go anything higher. But then came Obama, and then when I applied, now I have a job that will give me education as well as I can earn some money.”
Obama’s action proposes a handful of changes to immigration policy—but there are two big ones. The first expands the program Chavez took advantage of—to cover more people who came here as kids. The second would grant temporary status to some undocumented parents whose kids have either U.S. citizenship or green cards. Chavez says that’s a large part of this community.
“It’ll open a lot of doors for a lot of people here in Teton County—or Jackson, because a lot of people have the similarities of having children here as well as they want to work here,” Chavez says.
Rosie Read is an attorney at Jackson’s only immigration law firm. A large portion of Jackson’s Latino immigrant population is without documents. And Read says, most of those people will qualify.
“I expect it to be a majority,” says Read. “At least half of that population will be able to take advantage of one or the other of these programs.”
Read says some who are eligible won’t apply—because—they’re afraid of telling immigration officials that they’re here unlawfully. But Congress only appropriates enough money to deport about 400,000 people from the country each year—so Read says, even if priorities change, she doubts these people would need to worry.
“When you are talking about a program benefitting millions, I just don’t see a way for the government to then take all of those people and kick them out of the country—particularly when we have deportation priorities that are way higher on the list,” Read says.
Many immigrants here remember a now infamous raid in the 90s, when immigration officials rounded up 150 undocumented workers in Jackson and hauled them away in horse trailers. Things have changed since then, as a mostly-Mexican immigrant population has grown to become the backbone of the town’s tourism economy.
A man I’ll call “Tim” runs a sandwich shop in Jackson. He’s anonymous because he doesn’t want his hiring practices to be public knowledge. Tim says he cares more about work ethic than someone’s legal status.
“I look for good employees,” says Tim. “And it’s this town, it’s really hard to find people who are willing to show up for work every day for $10 an hour, because they’re either skiing, biking, kayaking or hiking.”
Jobs like this aren’t high paying, but there are lots of them—and that’s part of the reason Jackson has been attractive to immigrants. With these new policies, Tim says he hopes to be able to legally hire a new group of applicants.
“It will open up a slew of people who are willing to work and have responsibilities further than themselves,” Tim says.
Those granted deferred action can apply for work permits and driver’s licenses. Mirella Susano without documents to Jackson from Mexico 8 years ago. She earns $13 an hour as a housekeeper at a golf resort, but she’s eligible for deferred action under the new policies.
“With this permit, I’d be able to have more rights at work,” says Susano. “I’m looking for a better job.”
And Susano says, with a license, she’ll be able to take her son to school or to the doctor without fear that a routine stop by highway patrol could separate her from her family.
“With this, I would feel free,” she says. “Free to travel, to shop, and simply to have a better situation.”
The Republican-led House of Representatives recently passed a bill to block Obama’s immigration directives—and are now threatening legal action to do the same. Twenty-five states have also signed on to a lawsuit challenging the executive action. Wyoming hasn’t taken a position.
But the feds will begin taking deferred action requests for the expanded childhood arrivals on February 18, and are expected to take applications for parents in mid-May.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.