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Immigrants watchful of forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Lilliam Juárez, director of the Workplace Project in

Lilliam Juárez, director of the Workplace Project in Hempstead, speaks at a meeting on June 20, 2016, about President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, aimed at temporarily preventing deportation of certain immigrants. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

A decision expected soon from the U.S. Supreme Court may determine whether millions of immigrants who came to the country illegally — about 28,000 of whom are on Long Island — can seek temporary protection from deportation under executive actions issued by President Barack Obama.

The high court is expected to rule as soon as Thursday in United States vs. Texas, the case that brought together that state and 25 others to challenge the president’s use of his authority because of licensing costs falling on the states. New York is not a party in the case.

Obama’s “deferred actions” would shield many young immigrants and immigrant parents from deportation if they meet other criteria meant to protect families that have deep roots in the country. Those who qualify would be considered for work permits and could seek driver’s licenses in their states.

The expected ruling is keeping some up at night, including some of the many immigrants who live on the Island.

Wendy Urbina, 31, an Inwood resident who could qualify for exemption from deportation as the mother of a U.S. citizen, said she’s been so anxious that she dreamed she had been sent back to her native El Salvador. In the nightmare, she couldn’t see her husband or her child, and she thought she had been kidnapped.

“We are living with the worry that we would have to return to the same poverty, the same crime problems” in their country if the temporary protections against deportation are rejected, said Urbina, who works cleaning houses and has been in the United States for nine years. “We are praying to have the opportunity to be here legally.”

For families like hers — both she and her husband crossed the border illegally — much is at stake. The ruling could mean the difference between obtaining work authorization for three years or living with the prospect of deportation.

The ruling comes during a presidential election year in which many voters are galvanized by immigration issues. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has taken a tough stance that includes increasing deportations and erecting a wall along the southern border. Hillary Clinton, the anticipated Democratic torchbearer, has generally backed Obama’s more cautious approach, supporting comprehensive reform efforts that would open legal paths for immigrants.

Those favoring enforcement see Obama’s orders as an abuse of executive authority.

“I’d like to see these executive actions stopped,” said Barrett Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association in Cedarhurst. “We have a lot of people out of work already in this country” and a deportation reprieve would foster “uneven competition” in the labor market.

Obama issued the actions in November 2014, citing frustration with Congress’ unwillingness to overhaul outdated immigration laws.

The resulting programs are an expansion of the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA.

The expanded DACA exempts from deportation those who came illegally before they turned 16 and were in the country as of January 2010. DAPA exempts from deportation parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents and who lived in the country by that date. All have to meet other conditions, including criminal checks.

Urbina and her husband, Wilfredis Ayala, have a 6-year-old son, Justin, born on Long Island, and Urbina is pregnant with their second child.

Ayala, released from immigration detention after Obama’s actions, said if given the chance to stay, he would make the best of it.

“It would be an opportunity for all of us,” said Ayala, 31, a construction worker who came to the United States 11 years ago. “I have always dreamed of having a company in my name.”

An estimated 28,000 immigrants in Nassau and Suffolk counties could qualify to stay under the contested actions, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The figure rises to 254,000 immigrants for New York State and more than 3.8 million immigrants nationally.

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew S. Hanen, in a February 2015 decision, ruled the states could oppose costly mandates and issued an injunction that halted the application process. The high court’s justices will weigh on the states’ standing to sue.

“A lot of people are worried,” said Lilliam Juárez, organizer of the Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group in Hempstead. “For many people this is the opportunity to feel at ease in their jobs and their communities.”

Legal experts said there is no way to predict how the Supreme Court will rule, noting that the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia increased the possibility of a four-four split decision. That could send the matter back to the lower court for trial on the merits, but also could clear the way for implementation, said Bill O. Hing, immigration law professor at the University of San Francisco.

“It’s a major decision,” Hing said. “If the injunction is lifted . . . the immigrant communities are ready” and “the minute this happens there will be thousands of people applying right away.”

Both sides of the debate agreed the executive orders are a temporary way to address the fate of the population here illegally.

“Congress would need to demonstrate the resolve to actually do something,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group in Washington, D.C., that seeks immigration restrictions. “The Republican leadership has said almost unanimously that the president acted unconstitutionally, and it’s their obligation to exercise the power of the legislative branch to stop this.”

Melissa Crow, legal director of the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit in the nation’s capital that advocates on immigration issues, said a favorable decision would be both “a Band-Aid solution” and “a long overdue victory for immigrant families” across the country.

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