Obama Orders Legal Status for 5 Million

Executive order shields illegal immigrants from deportation, provides work permits
November 20, 2014 Updated: November 20, 2014

President Barack Obama outlined his plan to grant temporary protection to 5 million immigrants who entered the country illegally in a televised address Thursday night, defending his controversial decision to act unilaterally on immigration against charges of executive overreach.

The president will order immigration law enforcement agents to shield 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation and also provide them with work permits. Over half a million people already receive similar protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which the president created in 2012 when the DREAM Act failed to pass Congress.

The executive action will affect 4 million parents of someone who is a citizen or a permanent resident of the country, and an additional million will be added to the DACA program as it loosens its age requirements.

“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes,” the president said, “you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation.”

Obama’s executive action on immigration doesn’t grant the recipients permanent legal status, and could be revoked by a future president.

The action announced by Obama is a reversal from a position he articulated several times over the last few years. 

For instance, in 2011 he said: “With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed. … The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws.”

Public Opinion

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted this week found that 48 percent of Americans opposed the president taking action on immigration without congressional approval, with 38 percent in favor of it. 

A Rasmussen poll also from this week found that 53 percent of likely voters opposed the federal government shielding 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation and giving them work permits—whether or not it was approved by Congress—whereas 34 percent supported the policy.

Democrats are largely unfazed by the dearth of support for executive action on immigration, which they think will grow in popularity over time.

A supporter stands in front of the White House and holds an iPad streaming the live address to the nation by US President Barack Obama on executive action to reform immigration in Washington, on Nov. 20, 2014. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter stands in front of the White House and holds an iPad streaming the live address to the nation by US President Barack Obama on executive action to reform immigration in Washington, on Nov. 20, 2014. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

“I think once the president has an opportunity to explain it, those numbers are going to go up,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.

The address was not broadcast on the network television channels of ABC, CBS, and NBC. The White House did not send a formal request because the networks said they weren’t interested in interrupting prime-time coverage for what they perceived to be a heavily political message, according to Politico.

However, the address was broadcast on the Spanish-language channels Univision and Telemundo. On Univision, the 15-minute address was sandwiched before the second hour of the Latin Grammys, one of Univision’s highest rated programs that drew 9.8 million viewers last year.

“As part of its ongoing commitment to inform and empower the U.S. Hispanic community, Univision News will bring its audiences every detail surrounding President Barack Obama’s plans for issuing executive orders on immigration,” Univision said in a statement.

The Politics of Immigration Reform

Forty-three percent of Latino Americans support execution action on immigration, and 37 percent are opposed, according to the WSJ/NBC poll. Some pro-immigration groups greeted the news with mixed feelings, arguing that the scope of the current plan is not enough, as it only shields 5 million of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants from deportation.

“We celebrate our victory and those whose lives will be changed,” said Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream, which has organized many protests urging immigration reform. “The news that parents of Dreamers … are not included in this upcoming relief program is disturbing.”

Anti-amnesty activists gather in front of the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-amnesty activists gather in front of the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Others see the current plan as just what’s needed strategically to strike a balance that will galvanize Latino voters to vote for Democrats in future elections and at the same time avoid alienating voters averse to the president granting legal status to all the illegal immigrants in the country.

“I see it sort of like a Goldilocks solution because if there were a widespread expansion to cover all 10.5 to 11 million, it would be seen as amnesty,” said Peter Siavelis, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at Wake Forest University. “[The president is] covering enough people that will mobilize the Latino base that can counterattack any reaction from hardcore Republican voters who oppose immigration.”

In his address, Obama was at pains to differentiate his executive action from amnesty, and instead retooled the word to describe the status quo of immigration law. 

“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not,” the president said. “Amnesty is the immigration system we have today—millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.”

Siavelis thinks that Obama was mistaken to delay executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections, costing Democrats key Senate races like Kay Hagan’s in North Carolina by dampening the Latino turnout.

“But hindsight is 20/20,” Siavelis said.

Republican Response

Republicans leaders in the House and Senate have vowed to block Obama’s immigration action, which they see as a gross abuse of executive power and a threat to the separation of powers.

“The president has said before he’s not a king and he’s not an emperor, but he’s sure acting like one,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a videotaped statement released hours before Obama’s address.

House Republicans are divided on what tactic is needed to stop the president’s executive action. Iowa Rep. Steve King has called on House Republicans to cut off funding for the plan’s implementation. Congress has traditionally been able to attach “riders” to spending bills that place specific conditions before the funding is spent.

But the House Appropriations Committee said Thursday that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services couldn’t be defunded because it was self-funded. Hal Rogers, the Committee chairman, proposed the alternate tactic of “rescission,” which would allow the House to pass a budget and then strip out of it in a second bill money authorized for Obama’s immigration plan. Other Republicans have criticized this proposal as being purely symbolic, as Obama could veto a rescission from the House. 

In the Senate, a group of six Republican lawmakers led by Ted Cruz has promised to use “all procedural means necessary” to block Obama’s executive action on immigration.