An immigration reform proposal expected to be unveiled by President Barack Obama today could protect hundreds of undocumented immigrants living in Hawaii from deportation.

While that’s just a sliver of the nearly 4 million people Obama’s plan is expected to benefit, local advocates are excited to see the president take action on a long unfilled promise.

There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., with an estimated 35,000 living in Hawaii.


President Obama’s immigration plan could help hundreds of unauthorized immigrants in Hawaii.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“This is really a Band-Aid, but it’s a Band-Aid to stop a very open wound,” said Clare Hanusz, who heads the Hawaii chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Really at the heart of it is the deportation of parents who have children who are citizens of the United States.”

Hanusz said she gets dozens of calls from undocumented immigrants seeking counsel for exactly this scenario. Maybe they’ve lived on the islands for many years, working and paying taxes, but then a speeding ticket or some other violation can lead to a deportation proceeding that can split apart a family.

“It’s a very, very painful process,” Hanusz said. “Even to have temporary relief for some of these folks will be a really good thing, and that’s why we’re excited.”

Obama’s plan is expected to build off the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly referred to as DACA, which can provide qualifying unauthorized immigrants deferred deportation action for two years as well as a work permit.

But his proposal will be a far cry from the comprehensive immigration reform that immigration attorneys and activists have been calling for during his presidency.

His plan will likely not do anything to address family reunification, which has kept many families in Hawaii apart for decades. This is particularly poignant for certain Filipinos, who can experience some of the longest visa wait times of any immigrant group looking for legal status.

Hanusz is also skeptical about any reforms coming through an executive action, as they can be nullified by Congress or the election of a new president.

“It’s not all we’ve been pushing for,” she said, “but it’s much, much better than nothing.”

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