President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration has sparked debate nationwide. Media and political critic backlash have exploded over this action, allowing the content of the decision to hide behind the political drama.
Obama was seriously hindered in what action he could take, and yet the resulting changes are promising. Staying within his legal boundaries, Obama created several new provisions that greatly benefit undocumented immigrants, student visa holders and temporary workers. Although these are positive changes for immigration that expand the scope of our immigration system, there are several problems that remain prevalent.
Any decision that grants deferred action is just that, a process of deferred action with no possible gateway to citizenship available. Congress is the only one with the power to change that, and the current GOP-controlled Congress will not address that issue anytime soon. Additionally the next president, or any president farther down the line, could easily reverse this executive action. Obama’s executive action grants temporary relief for a broken immigration system, but it remains to be seen how long this little Band-Aid can cover a gaping wound.
Critics claim that Obama has misused his presidential power in what some consider an unconstitutional decision. In reality, Obama is simply increasing the scope of the practice of prosecutorial discretion, which was a common tool in the American immigration system long before this announcement. Prosecutorial discretion is the power to legally prosecute what is deemed most important, in this case as determined by Obama.
Essentially he is saying that undocumented people in the United States who obey the laws and pay taxes will be temporarily overlooked in prosecutions or deportations. Obama has charged Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to focus on prosecuting those who have committed crimes or not paid taxes while in the United States, claiming that this is the most efficient and beneficial use of American resources. This prioritization of deporting felons, not families, goes into effect immediately and also includes instructions for Customs and Border Protection and ICE to begin screening individuals in their custody who may qualify for this new provision.
In addition to refocusing prosecution, Obama has extended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) by removing the eligibility age cap and extending the renewal period to three-year increments. The date of entry requirement, however, has been pushed up from June 15, 2007 to Jan. 1, 2010.
While immigration advocates were hopeful that deferred action would be extended to the parents of DACA recipients, the executive action orders a new provision only available to certain parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. These parents must meet certain eligibility requirements, as well as pass a background check and pay all outstanding taxes. They will then be granted temporary status and allowed their chance to “play by the rules,” according to the White House website.
In a half-hearted effort to soothe angry Republicans, Obama has also promised to crack down on illegal immigration by continuing to deploy more resources and strengthen the enforcement at the southern border. Officers are also directed to focus their energies on individuals who have recently crossed the border, in order to stem the flow of people entering the country illegally.
Besides addressing undocumented immigrants, the executive action also took a stab at soothing big corporations and advocates of increased access for highly skilled immigrants. The new policies aim at improving the immigration process for science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers and other highly qualified workers seeking employment-based immigration. The policy memo that announced these particular changes calls this a “modernization” of the immigrant visa process, tasking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with several new policies that will be fully explained later. One extremely beneficial change allows for college students present in the United States on student visas to extend their stay by an additional 12 months post-grad, while engaging in some sort of experience-related program or job.
Positive changes are a step in the right direction; however, it remains to be seen how much backlash and resistance these new rules will meet. Can we trust our immigration system to enforce these new policies and use prosecutorial discretion to relieve the strain on families? I hope that the answer is yes and that the next two years show the nation the benefits of expanding immigration.
Megan Shannon is a contributing columnist. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org