What Will Obama Do on Immigration?

November 12, 2014
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

Immigrants who have been detained while crossing the border are housed inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, Tuesday July 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Rick Loomis, Pool)

Since he first took office, President Barack Obama has promised to address an immigration system he’s described as “broken,” with more than 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. He has held off on taking action for six years, amid hopes that Congressional Republicans would pass a comprehensive reform bill.

Now, Obama has said that he will act by the end of the year. “I feel obliged to do everything I can lawfully with my executive authority to make sure that we don’t keep on making the system worse,” he said at a press conference last week.

Executive action on immigration is nothing new. Since 1956, every U.S. president has granted some kind of temporary relief for some groups of immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council, which tracks immigration policy. In 1987, one year after President Ronald Reagan signed a law that offered a path to citizenship for about 3 million immigrants already in the U.S., his administration also deferred deportation for their children under 18.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush expanded those protections to include all spouses and children of the immigrants who were in Reagan’s legalization process, known as a “family fairness” policy.

Today, Republicans oppose any executive action on immigration. After the midterm elections, House Speaker John Boehner said that any unilateral action by Obama would mean “no chance” of passing a reform bill through Congress. “It’s as simple as that,” he said.

Given the political deadlock, if Obama takes executive action, that’s likely to be the only major reform to the immigration system for at least another two years. The White House, perhaps unsurprisingly, has offered few details on what that might be. But immigration advocates who have met with administration officials anticipate that the president is likely to take a two-pronged approach.

1. Deferred Action

Deferred action allows people who aren’t citizens to live in the U.S. temporarily without fear of deportation. It’s a tactic the administration has used before: Since 2012, the U.S. has deferred deportation for more than 500,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and grew up here.

A new action could extend similar protections to the parents of those children, or people who have children or spouses who have green cards or are U.S. citizens. That kind of action can be lifted by the president or superseded by new laws.

But it would be an important symbolic move for those calling for reform, said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “The question will be, how does he draw the circle? Who’s in and who’s out.”

2. Enforcement Reforms

The president is also likely to issue new directives to impact how the government enforces its immigration policy.

The government has ramped up border security and immigration enforcement, deporting more than 2 million people since Obama took office. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has said that it’s mandated to deport 400,000 people annually, a target immigration officials has roughly met each year.

The focus on deportations has riled immigration advocates, who cite families who have been torn apart and reports of abuse in detention centers. It’s also frustrated some in local law enforcement, who say such practices dilute their trust in the community and pose liabilities should they be sued for holding people unlawfully.

The administration has tried to tweak its policies, most significantly regarding who gets deported. In 2011, for example, the head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the time, John Morton, issued a memo to encourage immigration officials to focus on detaining and deporting those with serious felonies or who post a risk to national security, and consider relief for others, including pregnant women, domestic violence victims and those who have served in the U.S. military.

Since ICE issued that directive, known as prosecutorial discretion, the percentage of people officials have sought to deport for criminal activity in immigration courts has actually declined, from nearly 16 percent to an all-time low of 10 percent this year.

“Ultimately this is enforced by lots of guys with guns who see it differently than the suits at the top,” Kelley said.

In March, Obama asked the new head of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, to recommend reforms, some of which are likely to be part of any action the White House takes.

But Greg Chen, advocacy director at the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, said it wasn’t clear how effective new guidance might be in bringing fundamental change to the system.

“Without looking at who you’re focusing on for enforcement, without changing how detention is done, without changing how the government interacts with state and local law enforcement agencies, those mechanisms will continue to act as harshly as they have for the last decade,” he said.

The president is expected to make an announcement by mid-December.

Related Film: Lost in Detention

FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Workshop take a close look at the Obama administration’s controversial get-tough immigration policy (2011).

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