Millions of Immigrants to Stay, Work in the US
During a news conference last week, President Barack Obama predicted that "before the end of the year, we're going to take whatever lawful actions that I can take that I believe will improve the functioning of our immigration system."
He added that "what I'm not going to do is just wait."
He ignored angry protests from Republicans when he announced a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration enforcement system that will protect up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants from the threat of deportation. He also wants to provide many of them with work permits.
Asserting his authority as president to enforce the nation's laws with discretion, the president intends to order changes that will significantly refocus the activities of the government's 12,000 immigration agents. One key piece of the order will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent abroad.
That part of the president's plan alone could affect as many as 3.3 million people who have been living in the United States illegally for at least five years. The White House, however, is also considering a stricter policy that would limit the benefits of immigration to people who have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years, or about 2.5 million qualified people.
Extending the protections of citizenship to more undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children — and to their parents — could affect an additional 1 million if they are included in the president's final plan. His advisers are also debating whether also to extend the immigration protections to farm workers who have entered the U.S. illegally but have been employed in agriculture for many years, a move that could affect hundreds of thousands of more.
The president also wants to expand opportunities for legal immigrants with high technical skills and provide clearer guidance to the agencies that enforce the immigration laws for people who should be a low priority for deportation, especially those with strong family ties and no serious criminal history. A new memorandum will direct the actions of enforcement agents and immigration judges to make clear to them hat deportations should still continue for convicted criminals and for foreigners who pose national security risks.
Finalizing Obama's plans soon would extend to critics, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a specific target to attack, but it would also give immigration advocates arguments to defend. Waiting until later in December could allow the budget to be approved before setting off a fight over immigration. The Republican leader John A. Boehner said recently that if Obama went forward on his own, House Republicans would "fight the president tooth and nail."
In the Senate, a group of Republicans led by senators Cruz of Texas, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama — is already planning to thwart any executive action on immigration.
"If the president wants to change the legal structure, he should go through Congress rather than acting on his own," Lee commented.
Obama, however, concluded that acting unilaterally is in the interest of the country and the only way to increase political pressure on Republicans to eventually support a legislative overhaul that could put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to legal status and perhaps citizenship.
White House officials reject as overblown the dire warnings from some members of Congress who predict that such a sweeping use of presidential power will undermine any possibility for cooperation in Washington with the newly empowered Republican majority. Although a Republican president could reverse Obama's overhaul of the system after he leaves office in January, his action for now will remove the threat of deportation for millions of people in Latino and other immigrant communities.
The major elements of the president's plan are based on longstanding legal precedents that give the Executive Branch the right to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" in how it enforces the laws. Those precedents are also the basis of a 2012 decision to protect from deportation the so called "dreamers," who came to the United States as young children.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder observed that he was confident" … that what the president will do will be consistent with our laws."
Wolf D. Fuhrig, a professor emeritus of political science and criminal justice, has been a columnist since 1981.