Blocking immigration action will exact a political price

Activists rally in support of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration in Los Angeles last month.
Activists rally in support of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration in Los Angeles last month. The Associated Press

While an injunction by a federal judge in Texas may have cooled the jets on President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the politics continue to be heated.

Lost in the ruckus has been the fact that those who will actually benefit most from the president’s actions are not adult immigrants but children who are U.S. citizens. And they will likely remember which political leaders are determined to keep their parents in immigration limbo.

Obama’s executive action had two big components. The first is an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was announced in 2012 and has provided some relief to “Dreamers” brought to this country at an early age. While the program includes “childhood” in its title, the expansion raises the age cap to include those older than 30. As a result, nearly 210,000 of the 290,000 people affected by the expansion are older than 30.

The second component is a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which grants three-year work permits to undocumented adults who have been in the country for at least five years, are the parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and meet certain other criteria. The 3.7 million adults likely to be eligible under this program have 6.3 million children. While some of those children are themselves undocumented (reflecting the mixed status of many families), 5.5 million of them are U.S. citizens.

What may be poorly understood is that not all of these children are minors; the program does not have an age restriction, so some likely beneficiaries are able to vote. Indeed, of the citizen children who have DAPA parents, nearly 600,000 are 18 or older. If we add in those who will reach voting age by 2020, we are talking 1.7 million U.S.-born citizens.

Some might assume that because many beneficiaries of these changes live in California, they couldn’t swing key elections. In Florida, however, the number of U.S. citizens who are children of eligible parents and who will be able to vote by 2020 totals 70 percent of the margin by which Obama won that state in 2012. In North Carolina, another important swing state that narrowly went for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, these children eligible to vote amount to one-third of the margin of victory.

How might these children view those hoping to continue to hold the threat of deportation over their parents’ heads? While we can’t know for certain, the polling firm Latino Decisions reports that 89 percent of Latino voters nationwide and 75 percent of Latino Republicans support Obama’s immigration actions. In our state, the Public Policy Institute of California found that 69 percent of adults support the president’s executive action.

There are certainly reasons for Californians to be so supportive. The Golden State has the highest number of DAPA-eligible parents – more than 1.1 million, plus nearly 1.6 million minor children of potential beneficiaries. Using a midrange estimate from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, these families in California could see their total earnings increase by around $1.6 billion – enough to bring 40,000 children out of poverty.

California policymakers seem to be realizing that an investment in stabilizing the situation of parents is also an investment in the children. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has formed a task force to determine how the county can aid immigrants eligible under Obama’s actions. Hopefully, the state will follow suit.

Immigration reform may not be immediate, but it is inevitable. It simply makes too much sense to change a broken system that leaves too many people in the shadows, too many businesses without desired workers and too many children growing up in uncertain conditions. Bad politics will eventually give way to good policy – and successfully implementing the president’s actions is a down payment on the gains that a more comprehensive immigration reform will bring.

Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.