The president’s executive order: what difference will it make for immigrants?

What difference will President Obama’s executive order make for this family? Sandy Huffaker/Reuters

By Katharine Donato, Vanderbilt University; Alina Das, New York University; Ben Railton, Fitchburg State University; Elizabeth Lee Young, University of Arkansas; Eric Segall, Georgia State University; Helen Marrow, Tufts University ; Jennifer Lee, University of California Irvine; John Logan, Brown University; Roberto G. Gonzales, Harvard University, and Vincent Gawronski, Birmingham-Southern College

Editor’s note: On November 20, President Obama announced a plan – through an executive order – to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation if they meet certain criteria. His move has caused uproar among the Republicans on Capitol Hill and in many state governors’ mansions.

Here scholars from around the country give their reactions as to the impact the president’s decision will have on policy, politics and the immigrants themselves.

Katharine M. Donato, Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

The executive actions on immigration President Obama has just announced provisions to assist some unauthorized immigrants already living here to obtain temporary legal status and avoid deportation. This is action that many families have desperately needed, and I applaud the President for taking the lead on an issue that too many (in fact almost all) of our leaders have shied away from.

Most people who will come out of the shadows and benefit from the temporary legal status described by the President are parents of US born children and have lived here for more than five years. This executive action enables them to register with the government, pay taxes, pass criminal background checks, and pay a fee for this temporary status without fear of being deported. But even more important, it means they will be free to do many things they could not do before, such as open bank accounts and get health insurance, or attend parent-teacher conferences and drive to the supermarket without the fear of deportation. My research shows that doing these activities makes immigrants fearful of deportation and their response is to stay in their homes as much as possible.

Most of us don’t understand how damaging the fear of deportation is. But for the last two decades, many immigrant parents – with children who are US citizens – have lived with this very real fear every day. They know, for example, they are living in a time of uncertainty, as local policing has become influenced by anti-immigrant laws.

My research also shows that police have begun treating immigrants with no criminal record differently than in the past, leading to many deportations for non-violent offenses, such as driving without a license. Imagine how it would feel if one of your parents disappeared, never returning home after work.

After years during which hundreds of thousands of immigrants were deported in this way, the President has now made it possible for millions of our children to breathe deeply and not worry about what would happen to them if their parents disappeared, too. Estimates from the Migration Policy Institute suggest that between 3 and 4 million unauthorized immigrants live with at least one child who is a US citizen, meaning that the President’s actions will affect millions of US born children in a very big way.

Until Congress can finally pass the legislation necessary to fix our broken immigration system, the President’s actions insure that many of our immigrant families will get some respite from the constant anxiety and fear they have felt every day. Immigration is about families, and the President has targeted for protection those with immigrant parents and US citizen children. I, for one, am pleased with such action because it is the right thing to do.

Alina Das, Associate Professor of Clinical Law and Co-Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University

The President’s announcement was a mixed bag for immigrant communities hoping for a more humane immigration system.

On one hand, millions of American families stand to benefit from the President’s expansion of deferred action, particularly the parents of US citizens or permanent resident children.

On the other hand, the President’s emphasis on increased enforcement at the border and against people who fall under an amorphous “criminal” label will undoubtedly lead to many of the unintended and harsh consequences we’ve seen over the last several years – including family separation, deportation without due process, and abuses at the border.

Good and bad, one thing is clear – the President’s proposals fall well within his executive authority under the law, and it will now be up to Congress to build off these proposals to come up with long term solutions for the broken immigration system.

Vincent Gawronski, Associate Professor of Political Science at Birmingham-Southern College

Republicans are apoplectic, and Congress now has just another reason to not to do any meaningful work. However, President Obama’s Executive “Temporary Fix” Order is a double-edged sword. While it clearly lays out some of the problems with the broken immigration system and challenges Congress to do what it should do -— fix it with a comprehensive reform package —- it puts 5 million undocumented migrants in a quandary.

How many illegal immigrants will actually come out from under the shadows and waltz into an ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) office and turn themselves in? Allowing oneself to be fingerprinted and a background check and providing the authorities with one’s address and personal information is risky business.

Moreover, how temporary is temporary, if there’s no path to citizenship? What happens if Congress passes a mean-spirited law under a new Republican president? Who’s going to pay for the emergency room visits, if these people do not have access to Obamacare? Only about one-third of those eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program actually applied.

Obama’s Executive Order, moreover, really isn’t about reforming immigration policy. It’s only a short-term fix for certain people who are already here. It doesn’t address the absurd visa system at all. One thing is for certain: immigration law will be a growth industry over the next few decades. I’ve been advising my pre-law students to consider it.

John Logan, Professor of Sociology at Brown University

I see this as a positive, limited step that will improve living conditions in many communities around the country. It seems bold because it affects so many people. However, it isn’t opening the border to new immigrants, and it’s only a temporary measure. Many of the people affected by it are already in the labor force, and legalizing their status will strengthen the labor market by increasing their mobility and giving them a chance to better match their skills to job openings.

I suspect that the psychological effects are even greater. Certainly reducing the stress in their daily lives will positively affect their health and social interactions. Think about the impact for 4 million people, most of whom are embedded in ethnic communities around the country. This means that we should also see positive community–level effects–upholding values of family and community that are widely shared across the political spectrum.

Elizabeth Lee Young, Associate Professor of Law, University of Arkansas School of Law

As an immigration-law clinician and practitioner, I am excited to see that President Obama took action last night to streamline the process of immigration enforcement. The proposal he outlined will bring much-needed prioritization within the deportation process, as well as immediate relief to families of mixed status. I look forward to seeing the prioritization program implemented.

I have heard commentary from both sides of the issue – some arguing the President went too far, others arguing he did not go far enough – but I think the changes he proposed are an ideal execution of the balance of the powers afforded to the head of the executive branch. The changes he proposes are fine for the now, but the country needs a permanent solution for the broken immigration system. Perhaps his call to Congress to finally take action will be heeded in the coming year.

Helen B. Marrow, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies, Tufts University

This is an important moment for immigrant communities. Immigrant rights advocates won this policy shift through relentless organizing efforts that pressured Obama to keep his campaign promises. Their victory is a sign of the policy failures generated by an enforcement-only approach, but also a marker of immigrants’ increasing political strength.

Immigrant communities will need that strength even more looking ahead. Getting several million undocumented immigrants to apply for deferred action will require an all-hands-on-deck effort. Foundations, businesses, government, and the media can play a supporting role to community organizations and legal clinics.

Still, these executive actions are far from a total victory for America’s immigrants. They will leave out just as many people as they will benefit – currently another estimated 5 million or more undocumented immigrants who are not being deemed morally or legally “worthy” enough to qualify for protection from deportation. Immigrant communities have much more work to do as they look ahead to the next stage of reform.

There’s more. Any executive orders the President signs today can always be quickly reversed by the next president. And, while Obama can offer deferral from deportation, only Congress can put in place a long-term pathway to US citizenship. Ultimately, this country needs better long-term solutions, including ones that will address future undocumented migration more holistically. That will require action from the Republicans who now control Congress.

Ben Railton, Associate Professor of English Studies, Coordinator of American Studies, Fitchburg State University

The phrase “My family came here legally” will be heard a lot in the debate over President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. But for millions of Americans, those words are totally inaccurate. Prior to 1875, there were no national immigration laws. From 1875 to about 1920, immigration laws applied to only very specific immigrant groups: suspected prostitutes, convicted criminals, and immigrants from China and a few other Asian nations. If your ancestors came before the 1920s and were not part of those groups, they were not covered by any laws, and so were neither legal nor illegal. This is not just a semantic distinction. The phrase “My ancestors came here legally” implies that they “chose to follow the law”, yet none of these unaffected immigrants had to make any such choice, nor had any laws to follow. For many of us, our ancestors were neither legal nor illegal immigrants. They came, indeed, in much the same way contemporary undocumented immigrants do: by crossing a border.

Jennifer Lee, Professor of Sociology, University of California Irvine

The President wisely put a face to undocumented immigrants by offering the portrait of Astrid Silva, a young woman whose parents brought her from Mexico to the United States when she was only 4 years old. While Mexican immigrants, like Astrid, will be the largest beneficiaries of the President’s executive action, Asian Americans will also benefit. Under President Obama’s plan, an estimated half a million of the 1.5 undocumented Asian Americans will also be protected.

However, the President’s plan does not address visa backlogs, which is a pressing issue for Asian Americans; there are currently 1.8 million people in Asian countries who have been waiting for decades for a family sponsored visa. Given that immigration is the primary force behind the growth in the Asian American population, addressing this backlog will also provide welcome relief.

Roberto G. Gonzales, Assistant Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education

On Friday President Obama is in Las Vegas signing the executive action that could relieve as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and offer them work permit–a move that is expected to set up one of the most intense partisan battles of his presidency.

Amidst all the political shouting, it is important to understand what the President’s plan will actually do. Obama’s plan will expand eligibility for the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a program he administered in June 2012, to a larger number of young people who arrived in the United States before the age of 16. It will also expand deferred action to a large group of undocumented adults who have close family ties to either American citizens or lawful permanent residents, usually children.
These actions could have large, immediate, and long-term positive effects on the everyday lives of many families. Enforcement programs that have long been separating families have had a host of deleterious economic, social, and psychological consequences. My research over the first two years of DACA has shown that lifting the barriers of illegality expands youth’s economic opportunities, reduces poverty, and strengthens host communities.

The President’s new plan will build on DACA’s successes. Further expanding this program to the undocumented parents of US citizen children will also help relieve some of the burdens we have seen emerge among teenage and adult children who, even with expanded work opportunities, sometimes end up assuming a disproportionate share of family responsibilities. (Until now, they may have been able to work legally, but their parents still could not).

Eric Segall, Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law

The President’s executive action is different in degree but not kind than the actions of many Presidents before him. He has the right to allocate resources in the fight against illegal immigration and he has the right to make general policies concerning those resources. What he doesn’t have the right to do, and he has recognized this, is execute the law in a way that violates a clear congressional directive. Nothing in his plan is inconsistent with such a directive.

There is a lot of talk around wild hypotheticals such as a future President Ted Cruz deciding not to collect corporate income tax from any corporations or certain corporations. But, here the President’s policy relates directly to law enforcement. The President may or may not be allowed to make tax collection decisions, but he is definitely entitled to make prosecution decisions involving those who don’t pay their taxes.

Federal law prohibits the sale and possession of marijuana as well as cocaine and other drugs. The President has huge authority to decide to enforce some but not all of the drug laws. He can do that through case-by-case decisions or through general policies.

That is all that he did last night.

The Conversation


Alina Das, Ben Railton, Elizabeth Lee Young, Eric Segall, Helen Marrow, Jennifer Lee, Katharine Donato, Roberto G. Gonzales, and Vincent Gawronski do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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