While Arkansas's congressional delegation has expressed a disliking for President Obama's executive order to expand legal rights to unauthorized immigrants, some state groups who've advocated for reform are viewing the order with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Mireya Reith, director of Arkansas United Community Coalition, calls the order a long-awaited “first step forward.”
“For us, more than anything, this is a reaffirmation of family values which we hold dear in our state of Arkansas and an opportunity to really keep families together,” she says.
The order would limit deportations of undocumented immigrants to those with criminal records or those caught crossing the border illegally. Reith says her organization estimates that nearly 14,000 adults in Arkansas may become eligible to attain the legal status offered through the order. That's on top of 16,000 to 17,000 youth who she says may qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants temporary legal status to children who were brought into the country illegally before the age of 16.
Still, she says her organization will be helping people go through the process of attaining legal status, which will likely not be easy.
“It's tied to getting quality information out there, getting the support services that the community needs. And then also finding ways to overcome the financial barriers of cost,” she says.
Reith says nearly 60 percent of the state's immigrant community live in rural areas, far from many of the immigration attorneys primarily based in the state's central and northwest metropolitan hubs. She expects immigrants who qualify for work permits through the order could experience an economic boost if they are able to find higher paying, legal jobs.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau has lobbied Congress to pass an immigration reform bill. Zac Bradley, director of public policy for national affairs for the Bureau says the executive order is a “band-aid for a bullet-wound.”
“It's a short-term fix. And in practical terms we don't expect the president's initiative to help America's farmers with the real labor challenges we face. You know, we lose millions of dollars a year in production costs because farmers simply can't find labor to harvest everything that they grow,” he says.
The president's order would allow some unauthorized immigrants, particularly parents of legal citizens, to attain work permits. But Bradley says Congress still needs to do more by a revamping seasonal visa program.
“The real issue is that this order comes from the executive branch and not the legislative branch,” he says. “Our farmers and ranchers need a new flexible visa program that ensures kind of a long term access to an expanding workforce.”
Bradley notes that the Farm Bureau has sought to convince Congress and Arkansas's congressional delegation to support changes to the H-2A temporary visa program for agricultural workers, an element of the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed in the U.S. Senate last year.