Through a powerful and emotional address that was a forceful reminder of who we are as a nation and our values, President Obama declared his plan to bring an estimated five million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. The executive order President Obama announced is certainly aggressive. During a background call for reporters earlier in the day, senior administrative officials were adamant that Obama is “on solid legal ground.” After all, every president since Eisenhower has used executive action on immigration. But those officials also stressed that the president will still “work with Congress to fix our broken immigration system.”
As the president laid out, his is a threefold effort on enforcement, deferred action and legal immigration. “Prosecutorial discretion” is what we have been hearing all week to describe the enforcement effort. But Obama put it plainly when he said that the focus should be on “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”
The legal immigration piece of his plan focuses on allowing college students studying science and technology to remain in the country permanently. This is a great move. As the president noted, one of the biggest complaints from businesses and others is that the U.S. educates and trains foreign students in these vital fields and then makes it difficult, if not impossible for them to stay and apply their talents here in the country. Obama will also call for a program that beckons entrepreneurs to come to the U.S. if they have bright ideas and real investors to back them.
The bulk of the estimated five million people affected by Obama’s executive order will come through the Deferred Action for Children of Arrivals (DACA). Instituted in June 2012, this program allows undocumented children who came to the U.S. with their parents to remain in the country without fear of deportation. These are the DREAMers. Of course, they have to meet certain criteria. They had to have arrived in this country before turning 16 years old. They had to be under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012. They had to have lived in the country for five years. And they could not have a criminal record. The president’s order will lift the age restriction and the five-year residency requirement for DACA. That means young people between 16 and 30 who were brought to this country as children and entered the U.S. by June 15, 2010 are now eligible to apply for DACA.
The program is also expanding to include the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents (green card holders). They will have to undergo a national security background check, a criminal background check and pay taxes. Their DACA status would allow them to work and would last only three years. But they can reapply.
All told, an estimated four million people will be affected by the expansion of DACA alone. But not all undocumented people will be covered. The undocumented parents of those in DACA will not be eligible for the expansion. For advocates like Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, co-directors of Dream Action Coalition, this is worrisome. “We rejoice that many in our undocumented community will no longer live in the shadows or fear being separated from their families,” they said in an emailed statement. “We worry about those who will be left behind, however; what will be the future of millions of undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify?”
Senior administration officials said in that call with reporters earlier today that the attorney general and the homeland security secretary told Obama that he didn’t have the authority to put them under DACA. They also told him he cannot grant outright citizenship to undocumented immigrants. That is a job for Congress. And Obama had a simple message for the body tonight. “[T]o those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed,” he said, “I have one answer: Pass a bill.”
Obama said he wanted to work with both parties to come up with a “permanent legislative solution.” And he added, “[T]he day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.” Maybe this will spur Congress to meaningful action. Or perhaps this will rile Republicans to continue to do nothing. The Republicans’ rhetoric even before the president spoke suggests the latter.
Despite all that, the president finally stepped up to the plate to help undocumented immigrants while standing up for our national ideals.
Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.
Today, ‘la promesa de Obama’ will become ‘la accion de Obama.’ The Latino community will remember the courage it took to get here and the tears shed along the way for generations to come,” said Gabriela Domenzain, former director of Hispanic press for Obama for America. “While it’s a bittersweet moment since a permanent fix can only be delivered by Congress, Latino families will know the President’s bold first step sets us on a path to solve a problem many others haven’t even attempted to address.”
The ball, as it has been for at least a year and a half, is in the Republicans’ court.
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