Mario Chavez shares a moment with his wife, Lizeth Chavez, through the border fence at Playas de Tijuana during a weekend family visit. Mario, a US citizen, cannot leave the US because of parole restrictions, and Lizeth, a Mexican citizen, does not have a visa to go to the United States. The couple, who have two children, had been meeting every Saturday since December 2007.

(Washington) – US President Barack Obama’s decision to suspend the deportation of certain unauthorized migrants will protect millions of people from the corrosive threat of removal, Human Rights Watch said today. The plan outlined, while deficient in key respects, will keep eligible families intact and help immigrants resist workplace and other abuses without fear of deportation.

“President Obama’s plan to keep nearly 5 million immigrants and their families from being broken apart by deportation is a strike against arbitrary cruelty,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “By ordering major reforms to immigration enforcement, Obama is improving public safety and making millions of people less vulnerable to abuse.”

Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions expand eligibility for already-existing “temporary legal status” for migrants who came as children, and offers a similar temporary status for the parents of US citizens and permanent residents. Other aspects of the plan make it easier for families to stay together by offering relief to people who would otherwise be eligible for family visas but for bureaucratic backlogs. The plan also replaces a program known as Secure Communities, which the White House recognized undermines the community’s trust in law enforcement.

However, other abusive practices against immigrants are unaddressed, and possibly worsened under the plan, Human Rights Watch said.

Obama declined to provide protection against deportation to immediate relatives, including parents, of young people with deferred deportation status. In 2012, the Obama administration had announced that it would defer deportation for certain migrants brought to the United States as children. Over half a million people have already qualified for temporary relief under this program.

The plan also fails to mandate that Border Patrol or other immigration enforcement officers always consider the need to keep families intact. Human Rights Watch has recently documented how significant numbers of parents of US citizen children – 100,000 in the years 2011 and 2012 – are apprehended, summarily deported and criminalized at the border. Though many of these parents might have qualified for deferred deportation were they still in the US, Obama’s plan does not provide relief to them if they are caught trying to re-enter the country to rejoin their families.

“The mass deportation policies of recent years have left hundreds of thousands of families in limbo with one or more members forcibly separated,” Ginatta said. “Instructing the Border Patrol to roll back accelerated deportations at the border for people with deep ties in the United States would go a long way toward bringing some of these families together again.”

There were no changes to the administration’s problematic policies allowing the summary deportation of asylum seekers arriving at the border without sufficient assessment of whether they are being sent back to serious risk of harm, and that promote the detention of recently arrived families.

The president also did not reduce damaging federal prosecutions for illegal entry – a misdemeanor – and re-entry – a felony. Criminal prosecutions for entering or re-entering the US illegally are the most common prosecutions in the US, and sweep up thousands of people with deep ties in the country. Those convicted can become priorities for deportation because of their immigration status alone.  

“So long as the administration uses rapid-fire deportation procedures, prosecutes and incarcerates those already deportable, and detains entire families, hundreds of thousands of people will still suffer family separation and unfair treatment,” Ginatta said. “Obama’s plan is a temporary reprieve for millions and a first step in the right direction, but the need for a more lasting and comprehensive solution remains.”