Obama's Bittersweet Immigration Reform: Millions Protected, Millions Left Behind

President Obama’s unilateral overhaul of the nation’s immigration system is bittersweet.


On one hand, it blocks deportation and grants work permits—for the rest of Obama’s term in office—to 5 million unauthorized people who have been in the country for at least five years. These mostly are the parents of children who were born here (and are citizens) and young people who arrived as children and grew up as typical Americans. It also ends some of the more punitive practices in federal policing, such as the Secure Communities program, where local cops turned people over to federal agents, starting the deporation treadmill, even if the undocumented person had not been convicted of a crime. Now, police will only refer cases to immigration authorities if there was a prior criminal conviction.

“Felons, not families. Criminals not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” Obama said Thursday in a nationwide address. “We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

But there are big disappointments as well, such as leaving out the parents of Dreamers (undocumented children raised as Americans), and not taking any action on unauthorized farmworkers. The White House, which knows that Republicans in Congress and many red states are vowing to block its actions, explained that trying to shield those categories of people from deportation was on shakier legal ground. The parents of Dreamers, like their children, are non-citizens, they said. Helping farmworkers would single out one industry, while many others also rely on undocumented workers. The ongoing prospect of many families still being split up remains a real and inhumane threat.

“That’s what this deal is,” Obama said. “Now let’s be clear what it isn’t. This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently. It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive—only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”

While Republicans have viciously attacked Obama’s actions as illegal and imperial, the scope, affecting 40 percent of America’s undocumented population, is almost identical to immigration reforms under two related Republican administrations. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave 3 million unauthorized people a path to legalization. In 1990, his vice-president and successor, President George H.W. Bush, signed executive orders deferring deportation of 1.5 million spouses and childen of people who were legalized under that 1986 law. Like Obama, these reforms affected 40 percent of America’s undocumented population.

Bush chose the executive order route for the same reason as Obama; because Congress refused to act. In June 2013, 68 senators voted for a bipartisan immigration reform bill that created a path to citizenship for an estimated 8-9 million people. That legislation didn’t go anywhere in the House. Similarly, in 1990, Bush took executive action to pressure an intransigent Congress to act, which it eventually did. In his speech, Obama said he wanted to give Congress time to pass its own immigration overhaul.

“Had the House of Representatives allowed that kind of a bill a simple yes-or-no vote, it would have passed with support from both parties, and today would be law,” Obama said. “But for a year and a half now, Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simle vote.” 

But congressional action doesn’t appear likely soon, as many Republicans are blind with rage over these latest steps by Obama. The Washington Post reported late Thursday that GOP leaders are worried about overreactions by their party’s firebrands. In the states where Republican governors will now have to decide whether to issue drivers licenses and open enrollment in higher education, many likely presidential candidates threatened to sue or stonewall instead of helping newly protected immigrants. That includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kansas Gov. San Brownback, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.   

That Republican ire is partly a reaction to one of the most important aspects of what the White House is doing, immigration advocates say. The President is trying to create a new legal architecture for immigration policy and enforcement. This includes ending the punitive Secure Communities program; shifting enforcement efforts to the Southwest border; streamlining the immigration court process; expanding immigration options for victims of crimes and trafficking that assist government investigators; adding work and study opportunities for foreigners; and promoting citizenship to eligible individuals.

“He is offering Congress an architecture for the permanent reforms that our country desperately needs,” the American Immigration Council said in a statement praising Obama’s steps. “But we keep in mind the millions left untouched by the announcement today. Rather than look for ways to block reform, Congress should do its job to fix our broken immigration system and provide undocumented immigrants in this nation a full and meaningful shot at citizenship.”

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