President Obama’s executive order on immigration: Part 1 of 2

Lamar-Sarah-OPTBy Sarah H. Lamar for Savannah Morning News

On Nov. 20, President Obama announced an immigration plan that will allow up to 5 million undocumented aliens to remain and work in the United States by deferring their deportations for three years at a time.

The order was predictably controversial, and because its details may have been lost in the media uproar, a thorough review of its provisions may be beneficial. About 3.7 million deferrals will be for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens — typically, immigrants who came here illegally, then had children within the United States, which confers citizenship upon the offspring.

These deferrals are also available to the undocumented parents of legal permanent residents who have been here for at least five years. To receive deferrals under the executive order, all immigrants must pass background checks and pay taxes.

The order also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which was introduced by the Obama administration in June 2012. DACA originally granted work visas and two-year deportation deferments to 1.2 million people who had immigrated illegally since 2007 and were under age 16 when they arrived. The recent executive order moves the date of entry to Jan. 1, 2010, or after and will expand the DACA program by granting three-year deferments instead of two and removing the age cap.

The executive order also ended a program called Secure Communities, which was created during President Bush’s second term and expanded under Obama. The program was intended to help the government find and deport illegal aliens, but it was unpopular among law enforcement agencies assigned to implement it as both a drag on resources and a public relations misfire. Secure Communities resulted in more than 72,000 deportations in six years.

Obama also included increased funding for border security. As part of the order, the Department of Justice is announcing a suite of reforms to immigration courts intended to standardize Department of Homeland Security enforcement guidelines, eliminate the backlog of pending cases awaiting trial and close the cases of low-priority persons.

Border patrol officers are also being retrained with a clearer set of priorities intended to stop more attempts at illegal entry into the country.

The Department of Labor is expanding visa options for immigrants who are victims of crimes or human trafficking. There are also plans to ensure that immigrant workers can take advantage of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.

Another important element of the executive order addresses modernizing immigration procedures for “high-skilled immigrants,” including those working in the tech sector and others. These procedures may shield still more immigrants from deportation: Their status will be detailed in part two of this article.

Obama has defended the order as a necessary response to congressional inability to compromise on a legislative overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. He was explicit in stating that the recent gridlock in both houses on immigration reform was a prompting factor.

Obama’s executive order constitutes arguably the most sweeping unilateral immigration reform by a president in history.

In 1986, President Reagan signed a bill that had been passed by Congress to give legal status to approximately 3 million illegal aliens. Four years later, President George H. W. Bush granted work permits and a measure of legal residency to about 1.5 million more, this time affecting the spouses and children of immigrants who were in the process of becoming legal permanent residents.

While some take the position that Obama’s executive order is a proper exercise of the President’s authority, others claim the order exceeds presidential authority. Indeed, the state of Georgia joined a federal lawsuit filed last month challenging the order. The arguments for and against will play out as details emerge and the provisions of the order are implemented.

Part two of this column, which will appear Thursday, will examine the order’s effect on businesses, particularly the exemptions for “high-skilled immigrants.”