Ithaca, N.Y. — Sue Chaffee is on the front lines of how President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration will affect the Ithaca area.

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The director of the immigrant services program at Catholic Charities says her organization is the only local non-profit that offers low-cost legal consultations to the unknown number of immigrants who will come out of the shadows under Obama’s new directive.

Chaffee will talk with state officials on Monday. Then she’ll attend a meeting in Rochester, sit through several webinars and work to rigorously master the arcane ins-and-outs of the new guidelines.

“The law is incredibly difficult, so anything you miss could hurt your client,” Chaffee said in an interview Friday. “We have to be prepared for when an action takes place: There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Perhaps the biggest unknown? There’s simply no way to know how many people in Ithaca will be helped by Obama’s new initiative, according to Chaffee. This week, three people came into her office to ask about how the new order might affect their friends — but even that only says so much.

“Even when someone asks on behalf of a friend, you don’t know who that’s for,” she said.

Obama’s executive order

In a prime-time address Thursday night, Obama announced that he will ensure that up to five million people are not deported and allow many of them to work legally. The executive action offers no path to citizenship, according to The New York Times.

Republicans have expressed their fury about Obama’s move, which was not authorized by the GOP-controlled Congress and has been assailed as a dangerous and possibly unconstitutional overreach of executive authority.

While the repercussions of the executive action are unclear, Chaffee said there will be an “uptick” in those seeking advice from Catholic Charities in Ithaca.

“This is exciting because there are a lot of people who want to work” in Ithaca but don’t have legal authorization to do so, Chaffee said. Obama’s decision is expected to change that.

Chaffee said people wrongly assume that the executive order will only help immigrants who came from Central America and Mexico, but that Obama’s actions may also help those who simply overstayed their visas after coming from Asia. The effect may be especially pronounced in Ithaca, Chaffee said.

“When I’m thinking about who I’m giving services to, I’m equally thinking of people coming from both categories,” Chaffee sad.

“Especially in this area we’ll have people with overstayed visas … I think that’s going to pick up a lot of people in upstate NY.”

What Chaffee thinks is really needed

Chaffee believes Obama’s executive action will both help those living in America without documentation and open the door for future action.

But she said that his measures don’t take the kind of comprehensive steps she believes are necessary to improve the lives of all those living in the Ithaca area without legal status.

On Catholic Charities’ blog, she gave an example. Chaffee writes of someone she calls “Elsa” who has lived legally under the U.S. with Temporary Protective Status, which allows foreign nationals to stay in America “if there were conditions in their homelands that prevented their safe return.”

Chaffee writes:

“For 15 years now, Elsa has been doing what it takes to stay in good status as a TPS beneficiary. She undergoes criminal background checks, files tax returns, has to demonstrate she has good moral character, and she saves the fees (approximately $500) every times she needs to have her application prepared and filed”

“While this temporary status safeguards Elsa from deportation or detention and allows her to legally work in the US, it also places her life in a legal limbo since she never knows when her status could be terminated. For 15 years she has had to live with the ambiguity that if her country is deemed safe to return to, her lawful presence in the US could come to an end. Every time I see Elsa, she asks me the same question – “Why can’t I get a green card?” After spending 15 years in good status, albeit temporary, I think this is a valid question.”

Chaffee notes that Obama’s immigration reform does not help the many in Ithaca, like Elsa, who have other, greater needs for comprehensive reform.

“It’s really frustrating: Comprehensive immigration reform always gets pushed to the front burner, and then gets pushed back,” Chaffee said.

“You kind of prepare for immigration reform, and then it goes back down. It’s hard to get excited about anything, and it just seems like there’s so much more that needs to be done beyond Obama’s executive actions.”

Among those whose needs are not met by the recent reforms, Chaffee said, are also the parents of DREAM’ers and single adults without children who have been living in America for many years.

“I have couples where there’s no child and they’re living in the shadows,” Chaffee said.

“They’re participating members of our community and they simply don’t have children — they won’t be eligible.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.