President Obama unveiled a long-awaited series of changes to the nation’s immigration policies Thursday evening. While most of the details have yet to be announced, here’s a general overview of what to expect in the coming months, based on information provided by the White House:
Two distinct groups will benefit.
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 numbers about 3.7 million, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. Eligible immigrants will need to pass a criminal background check, pay a fee and prove that their child was born before Obama made the announcement Thursday night.
The other group comprises 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” in 2012. Obama’s new steps expand the group to include any person brought to the United States in 2009 or earlier, no matter their age. Estimates suggest that the expansion adds 300,000 undocumented immigrants to the list of those who can seek protective status.
Members of both groups will have to reapply after three years and can also apply for a work permit. The administration will make it easier for certain people with temporary status to travel to their home country if they first seek permission.
Obama is also expanding a program for foreign students in STEM programs here, and there also will be more options for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a business if they can get the money to do it. But Obama is not significantly expanding the H1-B visa program, a blow to the technology sector, a powerful lobbying force.
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 immigration agencies may eventually opt to waive some of the naturalization fees for eligible applicants. If they are married to someone with an H-1B visa, it will be easier to get permission to work and to change jobs.
About 6.2 million out of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States are still potentially subject to deportation.
That’s because most undocumented immigrants do not have children and Obama’s changes don’t account for them. The action also does not include parents of “dreamers.”
Also, there is no new protection or program for migrant agricultural workers, a blow to labor unions and the agricultural sector that have long sought ways to introduce a guest-worker program that would allow eligible people to travel north from Central American or Mexico and return home.
Ahead of the announcement, several gay rights groups also warned that Obama’s changes appear do little to help hundreds of thousands of undocumented lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender immigrants who live in the United States with little hope of achieving legal status, or to ensure their safety at federal immigration detention facilities.
What else did Obama do?
Obama spoke about bolstering border security, but guidance provided by the White House said little about new plans to shift resources or personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration has touted a sharp drop in illegal border crosses, and more people are moving out of the country across the border than are moving in, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will be issuing new guidelines instructing federal immigration agents to focus primarily on deporting people who are “national security threats, serious criminals and recent border crossers.” The White House characterized the move as designed to ensure that the government focuses on “deporting felons, not families.”
The administration also plans to work on moving 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 Department of Homeland Security plans to launch a new public awareness campaign in the 10 states with the largest populations of legal permanent residents to encourage people to apply if they are eligible.