The ongoing debate regarding the nearly 11 million undocumented people living in the United States played out in dramatic form on Thursday evening. President Barack Obama made a live address to the nation announcing his executive actions on immigration reform. The speech was a culmination of nearly six years of contentiousness between the White House and, well, everyone else.
From the very beginning of his presidency, President Obama was at odds over his approach to immigration. The first criticism came from his most ardent supporters due to his continuation, and expansion, of the Secure Communities Program that started under former President George W. Bush. Anyone who was booked into a jail, whether it was a simple traffic violation or a more serious offense, was fingerprinted. The information was shared with federal authorities, who would then match them against a database of immigrants, both legal and undocumented.
This led to a significant increase in deportations, causing immigrants rights groups to dub the president the “deporter-in-chief.”
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The move was a political calculation on the part of the White House to curb criticism from opponents ready to label the president soft on border security and illegal immigration. After the 2010 midterms, where Republicans gained the majority in the House, the immigration debate became more heated and difficult. Nevertheless, the Senate was able to pass a sweeping bipartisan reform bill in 2013 that gave those already here without legal status a chance to stay and pursue citizenship. It also altered provisions for family sponsorship, eased rules for employers to hire foreign workers and required an extensive increase in border security.
The bill never made it out of the House.
This summer, the president promised to use the power of the executive branch wherever possible to address the decades’ long issues with immigration. He had already done so in 2012, when he signed an executive order establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program. That allowed the issuing of work permits and protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 who came here as children. This enabled them to live and work temporarily with the option to renew their permits every two years.
As many of those permits are being renewed, the president has, once again, been forced to act where Congress has not.
In the nearly 15 minute speech, the president reminded the nation of the ongoing issues and the steps that have been taken to improve the system. He pointed out that Congress has had the opportunity to take action, and that the 2013 Senate bill is still awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. He also said he was ready to follow up on his promise from this summer and do what he could via executive action.
He announced the continuation and expansion of the DACA program. He eliminated the age cap of 31, and opened it to anyone who arrived in the US illegally prior to the age of 16, in the country for at least five years, even if they were over the age of 31 in 2012. Furthermore, those adults that came in as children and have lived here since January 1, 2010 are also available for the temporary two year visa and the subsequent renewals.
These newly eligible immigrants can begin applying next year.
Undocumented parents with children that qualify under DACA or who have children that are American citizens can also apply for a temporary visa if they have lived in the country for five years or more. To do so, they must register with the government, pass a criminal background check and pay all applicable taxes. While this will not grant a path to citizenship or otherwise bestow rights to those that are legal residents, they can now remain in the country without fear of deportation.
The immigrants that qualify for these visas also have greater flexibility to travel outside of the country. For those here on employment visas, they will be able to change jobs more easily. Their spouses will also find it easier to get visas.
The new actions include a new approach to deportations by focusing strictly on criminals and not families. While many local cities and states were not participating in the Secure Communities Program, the focus on criminal activity will reduce the number of undocumented immigrants that were deported for minor infractions. There will also be immigration enforcement reform, as well as continued focus on border security.
The order still falls short of the 2013 Senate bill. The president does not have legal authority to allow parents of the children who qualified for DACA in 2012 to apply for temporary status. Immigrants cannot be granted permanent status by the president’s order, as that can only be done by Congress. And unlike the Senate bill, those immigrants already deported can not apply to return. Most importantly, no one who has been here for less than five years is eligible for any of these reprieves.
It is expected that these actions will allow almost 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the US legally, at least temporarily.
While critics are suggesting that the president’s actions are illegal, he has simply followed a long line of previous president exercising similar authority. Furthermore, legal scholars agree that this falls under the authority of the Executive Branch. In fact, President Ronald Reagan, the last president credited with significant immigration reform, perfected the law passed by Congress in 1985, by issuing an executive order.
President Reagan’s order also shielded family members from deportation.
The president acknowledged his critics would be unhappy with his moves, but said that he was willing to work with them to find a permanent solution. “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” he reminded them.
He continued, “The day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.”
The ball is now in Congress’ court. Again.