The wait has been a long one. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

President Obama is planning to unveil at 8 p.m. Thursday a major executive action on immigration policy, offering temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, along with an indefinite reprieve from deportation. Obama administration officials previewed the details earlier today. (Wonkblog's full guide here.)

Who does the order help?

There are two groups of people who will be able to request a deportation deferral under the executive action.

  1. Undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years will be able to stay if they have a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. This group of parents numbers 3.7 million, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. If you’re in this group, you’ll have to show pass a background check, pay a fee, and prove that your child was born before today, Thursday. The federal government will also want to make sure you aren’t a serious criminal or a terrorist and that you haven’t crossed the border recently.
  1. The other group is those who were brought to the United States by their parents as children and are now here illegally. Obama already exempted about 1.2 million of these “dreamers,” as they are known, in an initial action two years ago. This action expands that group to include children who were brought into the country in 2009 or earlier, no matter how old they are. Before, you couldn’t be older than 30 to qualify. The expansion adds another 300,000 undocumented immigrants who can seek a reprieve from deportation.

Members of both groups will have to apply again after three years, and can also apply for a work permit.

The action also aims to make life easier for people who are waiting to become legal permanent residents. For example, it will be easier for them to travel abroad, and there might be more options for paying naturalization fees that they can’t afford. If they are married to someone with an H-1B visa, it will be easier to get permission to work and to change jobs.

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Who gets left out?

Most undocumented immigrants do not have children, and the action does not include them. The action also does not include parents of “dreamers.” In all, about 6.2 million out of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States are still potentially subject to deportation.

What does it do for engineers and other high-skill immigrants Silicon Valley wants?

The technology sector is one of the more powerful lobbies that has been advocating for a more immigration system, but they won’t be too excited about this action. Obama is expanding a program for foreign students in STEM programs here, and there will also be more options for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a business if they can get the money to do it. Silicon Valley, though, wants the H-1B program expanded.

What is Obama doing to better enforce the law?

There is a section about shifting resources and setting priorities for enforcement at the Mexican border. It’s hard to be certain how significant these changes will be, especially since the movement of migrants northward into the country seems to have stalled already. More people are moving out of the country across the border than are moving in, according to the Pew Research Center.

Another change is the end of Secure Communities, a program under which local police cooperated with federal authorities to identify undocumented immigrants. Police often felt that enforcing immigration laws not only was a waste of their time and money, and that doing so damaged their reputation in the communities they were working to police, making it harder to find criminals. Many cities were refusing to participate in the program already.

At the same time, the administration is making an effort to move people through the immigration courts more quickly. Long delays in these courts have kept hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in limbo for years. The average case took 578 days to close, as of this summer.

The administration is going to prioritize the cases of immigrants who are serious criminals or who have recently crossed the border first, while closing cases for others.