President Obama on Thursday announced sweeping immigration initiatives that would protect about five million undocumented immigrants from deportation, while also calling for legislators to create a bill that would address ongoing tensions at America’s borders.
Under the new terms of this executive order, undocumented immigrants who have been in America for at least 5 years, or who are parents of children who are either American citizens or legal residents, will not be at risk for deportation and will be able to apply for temporary citizenship and a social security number, after passing a criminal background check and paying taxes.
Other undocumented immigrants, however, remain at risk of deportation, including parents of children protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order issued by President Obama in 2012. Nor does the new executive order protect future undocumented immigrants.
While some protection is granted to about half of the country’s 11 million undocumented residents, full citizenship isn’t guaranteed to anyone affected by the president’s order. “It does not grant citizenship or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive,” President Obama said. “Only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”
There is no doubt that President Obama’s executive order is a landmark in our nation’s ongoing debate on immigration. By his action, the President took a strong stand on what is a very contentious issue to help millions of people living in shadows and in fear of being torn apart from their loved ones.
There are many very powerful reasons for immigration reform. President Obama framed his decision mostly on moral grounds. He said, “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants. It’s about who we are as a country. Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms?.” He also argued for reform on practical grounds (“[T]racking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic.”), on economic grounds (“Our history and the facts show that immigrants are a net plus for our economy and society”), and on legal grounds (“[T] are actions I have the legal authority to take as President.”).
But the unfortunate reality is that immigration reform has become a political game between Republicans and Democrats, and the parties’ inability to reach a solution to determine the fate of 11 million people is unrelated to the merits of the case.
The President could have invoked this executive order at any point in his presidency, but waited and waited until after the mid-term elections so as not to hurt the electability of Democrats. The Republican House could have passed the immigration bill sent them by the Senate in June 2013, but didn’t even bring it up for discussion on the floor, much less to a vote.
Now, in what Republicans see as an affront by the administration, we have the executive order, which Republicans are already looking to limit or derail in earnest.
The truly unfortunate aspect of this is that immigration has now become an even more difficult and polarized political issue. A policy that makes sense economically, socially and morally, a policy that affects almost 5 percent of the U.S. population directly – and many times more than that indirectly – should have become a matter of real bipartisan lawmaking and support. And the next two years will do little to diminish the charged atmosphere.
I applaud the President’s brave decision, but we all know that executive orders are not lasting legislation and do not represent stable, fundamental change.
For that, the road ahead is clearer than ever. Starting today, our communities and allies must escalate the active immigration reform organizing effort, so that the next Congress and President have a mandate to reform immigration.
A political fight is won at the voting booth. And, as President Obama said, that’s where all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.
Director, New Michigan Media
Associate Professor, WSU