August 4, 2014
Earlier this summer, President Obama announced plans to pursue administrative action on immigration reform, reacting to the bitter stalemate in Congress. While the nation has turned its attention to the urgent need to address the thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving at our southern border, others are eagerly awaiting news of what the President will do on broader immigration reforms.
President Obama’s intention to take immigration into his own hands is nothing new: In fact, U.S. Presidents have long had a great deal of discretion in prescribing the way that these laws are enforced, with the ability to employ relief mechanisms such as Deferred Action and Temporary Protected Status. (Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton exercised this executive power on immigration-related issues at various times during their presidencies, as did both Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush.) While a president cannot unilaterally overhaul U.S. immigration policy, there is ample room for maneuvering between discretionary authority, and changing the law.
The question for the Midwest—a region that relies on immigrants to boost an otherwise-shrinking population, bolster the high-tech manufacturing industry, and provide seasonal labor for its agricultural sector—is what shape the Obama Administration’s version of Administrative Action will ultimately take.
According to some groups, President Obama’s biggest contribution to immigration policy thus far has been his record-breaking number of deportations of unauthorized immigrants: over two million people since he came into office in January of 2009. This number of deportations is larger than the total number carried out during the administrations both of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined. The impact of unprecedented detention and deportation levels on immigrant families is impossible to measure.
It is important to note that administrative action of any shape or size could not grant a permanent solution to those residing in the country without an immigrant visa: Only Congress can grant legal permanent residency status to immigrants in the country without authorization. But a sizeable percentage of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.—more than 1.3 million of them in the Midwest—could potentially benefit from the relief from deportation and a work permit, actions within Obama’s executive purview. And Midwestern employers relying on immigrant workers—the agriculture, tech, and healthcare sectors among them—would benefit from potential protections and eased visa restrictions for specific employment categories.
While Obama’s final plans for administrative action have yet to be seen, possible components could include:
- Granting Deferred Action to a wider group: The Obama Administration could grant Deferred Action (similar to the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), to a wider group of beneficiaries, potentially including parents and siblings of current DACA beneficiaries. As stated before, measures like this –by themselves—do not lead to legal permanent residency status, a fact that complicates efforts to fully integrate immigrants into Midwestern communities and throughout the U.S.
- Shifting enforcement priorities: The President also could revamp the priority criteria for immigration-related prosecution, and administratively close all cases of unauthorized immigrants whose sole infraction to the law is to reside in the U.S. without a visa. The judicial system and Department of Homeland Security could then focus resources on deporting criminals who have committed violent crimes or otherwise pose safety threats to their communities. Adjusting enforcement is a partial fix: Individuals who are otherwise upstanding members of society would wait in limbo until Congress passes laws that resolve their legal status. This move also fails to address the challenges of programs like Secure Communities, which relies on limited local law enforcement resources to administer federal immigration policies. Midwestern states like Illinois have tried to opt out of the program, even as the administration pushes for its implementation nationwide.
- Protecting specific groups: The President could grant Temporary Protected Status to benefit more targeted groups of unauthorized immigrants such as victims of recent natural disasters or those fleeing systemic violence and human rights violations in their home countries. Many of the recent arrivals of women and children from Central America would probably qualify in this category. Obama may also be able to extend protections to specific classes of workers, such as the many undocumented workers in the Midwest’s agriculture sector, and address the visa restrictions that keep the region from attracting and retaining the world-class talent that it needs to promote innovation and compete on a global scale.
With administrative action, President Obama has the opportunity to make headway on what has otherwise been long-stalled reform for our broken immigration system. But the bottom line is that administrative action can only go so far. A full fix to our complex immigration challenges—in the Midwest and across the country—requires bipartisan action from Congress. As the President weighs his options for administrative action, finding the political will to benefit as many immigrants as possible without further riling his opponents, Congress should also seek the political will to work towards compromise to address the larger challenges of the inadequate and outdated immigration system.
Oscar Chacón, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), is a member of the Group of 500