In announcing his executive action on immigration, President Barack Obama made clear that what he did not do – and cannot do – is create a law. Only Congress can do that, so his executive order is necessarily very limited.
Part of what the order will do is refocus Department of Homeland Security priorities for deportation; establish limited, temporary reprieves from deportation for some unauthorized immigrant parents; expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA; better protect victims of human trafficking and of crimes who cooperate in government investigations; give more freedom to high-skilled workers to choose between employers while awaiting green cards; and speed up cases for foreign entrepreneurs who create jobs in the U.S.
While the details will become clearer in the coming weeks, the biggest news is that some parents of children who are citizens or permanent residents may be eligible to obtain work permits and avoid deportation in three-year increments if they can demonstrate economic necessity. What they won’t get is a path to a green card, access to Obama’s health plan or anything else denied to unauthorized immigrants.
Qualifying will not be automatic or easy. It will likely require proof that applicants have continuously lived in the United States since Jan. 10, 2010, and that they are parents of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident children. They will have to register and pass criminal and national security background checks and pay taxes if not already doing so.
These parents are not cutting in line or getting in line for a green card. They are only getting a chance to avoid deportation for a limited time unless and until Congress passes an immigration law that helps them permanently. Future presidents can take this back, and those who have brought themselves to the attention of the authorities then could be deported.
The president’s plan fell short of what some anticipated because he did not extend this temporary reprieve from deportation to parents of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children and were granted similar relief in 2012. Millions more would have benefited had he included these parents, but administration lawyers said that would not be legal.
To put this change in perspective, U.S. citizens who are at least 21 can already petition for their undocumented parents to get green cards. The president’s action merely shields some of those parents until their children are old enough to petition for them.
The controversial and failed Secure Communities program will finally be replaced with a new Priority Enforcement Program intended to better target convicted criminals and build community trust.
For those skeptical of Obama’s action, it is worth noting that it also serves as an enforcement tool by requiring extensive background checks. By bringing individuals out of the shadows, the president is not just doing them and their families a favor, but he is increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of identifying the few who truly might pose a threat to national security.
Obama’s action will not open the floodgates. DACA in 2012 did not result in a measurable increase in illegal border crossings. The recent influx of women and their children fleeing violence in Central America is totally unrelated. As is well documented, migration is driven by economics and unlivable conditions in home countries. Obama’s announcement also included a stern warning that those attempting to enter illegally will be sent back.
There is no quick fix to curbing unauthorized migration and addressing the reality of a significant undocumented population. Honestly looking at our current system’s exploitation of unauthorized workers, increasing stability and aiding economic development in immigrants’ home countries would do more than any number of costly fences, walls or detention facilities. Until the debate is shifted to focus on the root causes, no immigration reform measures will cease the flows, which we need and implicitly invite.
It is important to remember that leaving one’s home is not something that most people want to do but instead is often a necessity to protect or provide for their families. The president’s action will hopefully encourage Congress to do what the president implored – pass a humane and fair bill.
Carrie Rosenbaum is a professor of immigration law at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco and an immigration attorney in private practice.