Confused About the President's Immigration Announcement? A Simple Explanation...

November 22nd 2014

President Obama announced a new policy on immigration tonight, and it's a pretty big deal.

Two major groups will be protected from deportation as a result of this change. The policy will affect more than 5 million people, including an additional 4.3 million more people from the last major executive action on immigration. This will not give these people legal status, but it will protect them from deportation for a renewable three-year period. To achieve this protected status, those impacted must actually apply with the federal government.

Who exactly is the President going to protect from deportation under this executive action?

  1. People who came the U.S. before 2011 and before they were 16-years-old. These are people who entered the United States as children (presumably with their parents or some other adult) and remain in the country without legal status. Often, you'll hear this group referred to as "Dreamers" in reference to the DREAM Act, a law that would have awarded this group permanent legal status. When Congress failed to pass that law, leaving this group vulnerable to deportation, the president took an executive action to protect some of them from deportation. He did that in 2012, and it was called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Here's how the DACA pool has been expanded:
    1. DACA excluded any immigrant who was over 30. The new action eliminates the age limit.
    2. DACA only applied to immigrants who came here before 2007. The new action includes people who came between 2007 and 2011.
    3. Here is an area that was not expanded. It was reported in the New York Times that the president might include older children in this pool. He will not. To qualify, a person must not have been older than 16 years old at their time of arrival in the U.S.
  2. Parents with children who are either U.S. citizens or green card holders. The parent must have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years.
    • Parents who are not authorized, but have children with legal status. (e.g. An unauthorized resident whose child is a U.S. citizen or green card holder.) 
    • These people will have to register and pass both a criminal background check as well as what the administration calls a "national security" background check.
    • They must also pay taxes.
    • Note: Some expected the parents of Dreamers (i.e. Category 1 above -- people without legal status) to be included. They are not.

What about border security?

  • More resources on the border. The Homeland Security and Justice Departments are taking actions that will shift resources to better deal with illegal border crossings. This includes more personnel on the border and quicker disposition of immigration cases.
  • Deporting "bad guys" instead of "good guys." The Homeland Security Department will also prioritize deportations of people deemed threats to national security, convicted criminals, and recent border crossers.
  • Local and federal cooperation. The federal government will continue to request the biometric data (like finger prints) of suspected unauthorized border crossers, but that data will be limited to those enforcement priorities above (such as convicted felons or national security threats).

What was the result of the last executive order on immigration that the president signed?

That was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). As mentioned above, DACA protects people who were children when they came to the United States as unauthorized immigrants. These people do not currently have legal status in the United States, but DACA provides them with access to two-year, renewable work permits and Social Security numbers. It only applies to young adults -- people who arrived in the United States before 2006 and are under age 30.

So far, 587,366 undocumented people have DACA status. A survey by the Center for American Progress found that 70% of DACA respondents have found jobs since enrolling in the program. Forty-five percent said reported an earnings increase. 

What's an executive action?

An action the president can take without input from Congress. The President has this power over matters pertaining to the enforcement of existing federal law. With respect to immigration, the President cannot on his own award someone legal status or U.S. citizenship. But the President can prioritize who actually gets deported by the agencies under his authority. 

Why can't Congress pass a law?

They don't want to. While the Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year, the Republican House of Representatives sat on it, effectively killing the bill. While some prominent Republicans are open to reform, most of the conservative base is stridently against it.

Alright, so executive action is the only option. What are the downsides?

Executive actions are as easy to reverse as they are to enact. That is, the next president could simply toss out President Obama's executive action with his or her own executive action. It just takes the stroke of a pen.

Who is against this executive action?

Some argue that these types of protections simply incentivize unauthorized immigration. So they are against any executive action by the President as well as a change in law by Congress. This is the opinion held by many conservatives.

Others might be in favor of the principle of what the President is doing, but not like the way he's doing it. That is, they think we should reform laws that break up families, but they think the President should not act on his own. They believe Congress should debate and pass a change in the law that the President should sign. Executive action, in their opinion, is not a healthy thing for a democracy.

Why is everyone talking about that actress from Orange is the New Black in the context of immigration reform?

One of the stars from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black advocated for reform to deportation laws in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, drawing on her personal experience of having her parents deported when she was 14:

"And then one day, my fears were realized. I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn't there. Neighbors broke the news that my parents had been taken away by immigration officers, and just like that, my stable family life was over," wrote Diane Guerrero, who plays Martiza Ramon in the series.

Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me. No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own."

She went more into depth in an emotional interview on CNN.

What Guerrero describes is precisely the kind of scenario that immigration reform advocates have been pushing the White House to eliminate through executive action.

Correction: To qualify for the program, unauthorized immigrants must have arrived before they turned 16. This post previously said 16-years-old and younger.