An Overview of Obama’s Executive Order on Immigration

Lamar-Sarah-OPTBy Sarah Lamar, HunterMaclean

Special to Business in Savannah

When President Obama announced his executive order on immigration last month, the broad outline he presented raised many questions. This article is an overview of a two-part series in Savannah Morning News, detailing the upcoming changes and how they could impact businesses.

  • The order will allow up to 5 million current undocumented aliens to stay and work in the United States by granting them deferrals of deportation for three years at a time. The undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or of legal permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years constitute the largest number of these—about 3.7 million.
  • The plan extends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy from two years to three, expands it to include undocumented immigrants who arrived here before January 2010, and removes the requirement that applicants be under 31 years of age. These changes are expected to extend deferrals to an additional 300,000 people.
  • The executive order discontinued the controversial Secure Communities program, begun under the Bush administration and expanded under Obama. The program was intended to help find and deport illegal aliens, but was unpopular for multiple reasons among the local enforcement agencies assigned to implement it.
  • To curb future illegal immigration, Obama’s plan increases funding for border security. This will facilitate a variety of reforms, adding new efficiency-oriented training, standardizing DHS enforcement guidelines, eliminating case backlogs, and closing low-priority cases.
  • The second arm of the executive order is aimed at resolving current issues with the status of educated, high-skilled workers such as doctors, engineers, researchers, and others who immigrate to the United States. Approximately 1 million of these individuals will be granted relief in the visa application process as a result of the new rules.
  • Formerly, applicants for a high-skilled work visa (H-1B visa) were required to prove that they had an active job offer awaiting them on arrival in the country, and their visa was tied to that specific employer. As a result, these workers had great difficulty changing jobs, with the threat of deportation looming.
  • Under the new system, high-skilled immigrants will be able to receive H-1B visas provided they can meet certain requirements showing that their request is in the national interest of the United States. This is expected to alleviate many of the unanticipated problems that arose under the old system.
  • The government will expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that has allowed foreign students in technical fields to stay in the United States and work for as long as 29 months after graduation. The program was implemented to cover the “gap period” between the expiration of student visas and the students’ ability to obtain H-1B status. The order also seeks to streamline the process for issuing green cards for permanent resident alien status.
  • The President’s plan also contains provisions for inventors and startup founders to more easily remain in the country on a provisional “parole” status, on the principle that entrepreneurs are an economic stimulant. Further provisions make greater allowances for H-1B visa holders’ spouses, many of whom are also high-skilled workers, to obtain work permits while they are here.

President Obama’s executive order constitutes one of the most sweeping immigration orders issued by an American president. As stated, the plan is intended to modernize the immigration system and help both individuals and businesses. In light of the long-stalled immigration reform debate in Congress, there are many proponents of immigration reform who herald the President’s order and accept it as part of the administration’s “prosecutorial discretion” on law enforcement priorities. Others decry the order as giving virtual amnesty to those who entered the United States illegally. (Indeed, the state of Georgia joined a federal lawsuit filed on December 3 challenging the constitutionality of the executive order.) The arguments pro and con will be fleshed out over time, especially as the details of each provision are implemented.