Last night, President Barack Obama laid out his plans for executive action on immigration. The new program will provide temporary administrative relief and work permits to undocumented immigrants who pass a background check, have lived in the United States for a minimum of five years, and have a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, or LPR. The president’s actions mean that law-abiding immigrants with strong ties to the United States will no longer live under the threat of deportation. This program is modeled after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that benefits young people who came to the United States as children. The new executive action also broadens the DACA program by expanding coverage to children who entered the country before January 1, 2010, regardless of their age today. This is undoubtedly a tremendous win for the immigrant community and immigration reform advocates, and most importantly, it paves the way for a broader immigration reform when Congress decides to act.
Here are five facts to keep in mind when assessing the potential impact of this executive action:
1. President Obama has the legal authority to act.
While Congress makes the laws, the president decides how to enforce those laws. Every law enforcement agency makes daily decisions on which areas to focus their resources. And in the immigration context, a decision to focus on those who have criminal offenses, such as finding and deporting serious criminals and national security threats instead of separating families, is completely consistent with executive authority. Moreover, 136 immigration law scholars published a letter earlier this year arguing that President Obama has broad legal authority “to protect individuals or groups from deportation” and that the Constitution backs this authority. Finally, as President Obama said in his speech last night, presidents from both parties have taken executive actions on immigration over the past decades, including President George H.W. Bush, who deferred the deportation of nearly 1.5 million undocumented spouses and children of individuals who were legalized under President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
2. Executive action will bring economic benefits to states and the nation and give immigrants the opportunity to take care of themselves.
As the Center for American Progress has demonstrated in economic research, the economic benefits of executive action are crystal clear: Nationally, there will be an increase in payroll taxes of $22.6 billion over five years. States will also see significant benefits: Colorado, for example, will see a $165 million increase in tax revenues over five years, and Nevada will see an $18 million increase in tax revenues over five years. Equally important, lifting the threat of deportation and providing work permits to those who qualify will unleash the potential for immigrants to access better jobs and opportunities. In the long run, this will mean immigrants are better able to take care of themselves and their families.
3. Immigrants will pay fines in order to apply to this program, which will cover administrative costs.
Just like the deferred action program for young people, President Obama’s executive action will be funded by fines that immigrants will pay themselves. Those who want to apply for this program will have to pay about $500 per person to be able to process their request. And while gaining this status will allow them to live freer lives, they will not be able to access public benefits such as subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, or food stamps—similar to the current DACA recipients.
4. Status is not automatic; there will be an application process.
Like the deferred action program for young people, there will be an application process. Applicants will have to prove that they have lived at least five years in the United States, have U.S. citizen or LPR children, and can pass a background check. Furthermore, this program is not automatic or permanent, and immigrants who qualify will have to reapply for an extension after three years.
5. This is a first step but not a permanent solution.
While this is a significant reprieve for the undocumented population and a tremendous win for the immigration reform movement, it is not a permanent solution. Almost half of the undocumented immigrant population will be left out—most notably, people who have no U.S. citizen or LPR immediate children. The executive action is also meant to be a temporary fix since it does not provide permanent status and can be undone with the stroke of the president’s pen. But it is a first step and will set the table for broader immigration reform because it will bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the legal system as they are vetted during the application process.
In the end, and as the president pointed out in his speech last night, Congress alone can create a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. The ball is in Congress’ court now, and the next few days will show whether the Republican majority can govern in an inclusive way or whether it will continue obstructing any kind of progress on this issue. In the meantime, the immigration reform movement has earned the right to celebrate this well-deserved and hard-fought victory along with the millions of people who will breathe a sigh of relief after so many years of living on the fringes of society and in the struggle for progress on immigration reform.
Vanessa Cárdenas is the Vice President of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.