Here's How the President Will Respond to His Immigration Reform Critics Tonight

January 14th 2015

Mike Vainisi

Tonight, it's expected that President Obama will discuss his efforts that stopped deportations of young people who came to the the US as undocumented immigrants when they were children. The president created these deportation protections through executive action -- that is, without Congress' approval -- to stop deportations of young people who grew up in the US and deportations that were breaking up families.

Republicans don't like these changes.

It's timely because Republicans in the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would gut those changes. It would also eliminate similar protections for undocumented parents who have children with legal status in the US. 

Republicans did not like the president's executive action for two major reasons. For one, many believe this amounts to amnesty for immigrants who entered the US illegally. Secondly, they believe the president exceeded his power by creating these protections without congressional approval.

“We do not take this action lightly, but simply there is no alternative,” House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said. “This executive overreach is an affront to the rule of law and to the Constitution itself.”

The House's passage of this bill sets up a battle in the Senate. It's not likely to pass the Senate as moderate Republicans are not fans of the bill, and, even if it did pass, it would surely be vetoed by President Obama. Still, it will be Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's first test. He must balance two interests: conservative and Tea Party members of his party who want to overturn the president's action and the desire of his party to appeal to Latino voters, who overwhelmingly voted against Republicans in the last presidential election. 

So what exactly did the president's action do?

The policy affects more than 5 million people. It does not give these people legal status, but protects 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 protected?

  1. People who came the US. 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 was expanded in 2014:
    • DACA excluded any immigrant who was over 30. The new action eliminates the age limit.
    • DACA only applied to immigrants who came here before 2007. The new action includes people who came between 2007 and 2011.
    • 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 US.
  2. Parents with children who are either US. citizens or green card holders. The parent must have lived in the US. 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 US. 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.

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'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 US. 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.