This story is over 5 years old.


Obama Has Saved 5 Million Illegal Immigrants from Deportation – Now What?

Republicans are already losing their minds over the president's new executive order.
Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr

On Thursday night, speaking to about 10 million people ​who thought they were tuning in to watch the Latin Grammys, President Barack Obama dared Republicans in Congress to take up a comprehensive immigration bill, and told them, in so many words, that until they do, he's going to do whatever the fuck he wants. Practically speaking, that meant signing a sweeping executive order that will overhaul the country's broken immigration system, and protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.


"If you've been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes—you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation," he said. "You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That's what this deal is."

The order temporarily shields around 4.3 million undocumented immigrants—of the estimated 11 million currently living the country—from getting deported. The bulk of these immigrants, or roughly 4 million, are the parents of legal US residents who have been in the country for at least five years. When it takes effect, likely sometime next spring, those who register with the government and pass a background check will get work authorizations and protected status for up to three years (they will also have to start paying taxes). The plan also expands the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhoo​d Arrivals program, which extends temporary protections for people who were brought to the US illegally as children, and allows them to apply for work visas as well.

Beyond these protections, Obama's new executive action also signals a broader shift in the way that the federal government deals with unauthorized migrants. Specifically, it orders the feds to prioritize deporting criminals over other immigrants, including by reforming the Department of Homeland Security's  ​"Secure Communities" program, which until now has basically been a dragnet for the feds to deport any undocumented immigrant who has been picked up by the cops, regardless of whether he or she was convicted of anything. With Obama's new order, the feds will only ask state and local authorities to hand over immigrants after they've been convicted of a serious crime. The order also expands work permits and visas for foreign students and entrepreneurs, a key demand of the business and tech lobbies.


What the order doesn't do is make it easier for any of these undocumented immigrants to become citizens. Only Congress has the authority to do that, which means that gridlocked cesspool will still have to pass comprehensive immigration reform, at some point. And because it's an executive order, and not a law passed by Congress, whoever is elected president in 2016 could simply reverse it. So it's not clear how many undocumented immigrants will actually register for the protected status, given that it could be taken away a year after it's granted. By and large, though, it's hard to see how any action, however incremental, that reforms our cold-hearted immigrations systems, keeping families together and giving people an opportunity to make their lives better, is a bad thing.

"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?" Obama asked in his speech Thursday night. "Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works together to keep them together?"

He added this jab at his critics: "The actions I'm taking are not only lawful, they're the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century. And to those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill."


As you might expect, Republicans have lost their minds over all this. California Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader, called it a "brazen power grab." House Speaker John Boehner declared that Obama has "damaged the presidency." Rand Paul spent most of Thursday night  ​tweeting out King Obama memes. (​The Drudge Report took up this line as well.) In a video that appears to have been shot in his bathroom, ​Ted Cruz appears to have come completely unhinged, and demands voters "stop Obama's amnesty."

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = "//"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

Post by Ted Cruz.

Perhaps rightly, Republicans see Obama's latest immigration move as a "fuck you" to Congress, and also as a big abuse of power. It's true that the executive order is an unprecedented relaxation of the country's immigration laws, and also a huge expansion of executive power. While it is pro​bably not illegal, as many on the right have claimed, the immigration order does raise uncomfortable questions about just how far presidents can go to unilaterally rewrite domestic and foreign policy. (New York​ Times columnist Ross Douthat and the Atlantic's Co​nor Friedersdorf have particularly grim views on this point.) It doesn't help that Obama himself has previously said that he couldn't take such​ actions on immigration, only to change his mind.

Politically, though, Obama's executive action puts Republicans in a tough spot. If initial reactions are any indication, the move has pushed the entire party even further to the right on immigration, uniting Tea Party xenophobes and Establishment-types against a common enemy. It basically guarantees that immigration will continue to be an issue going into the 2016 election—when Republicans will need to win over Hispanic voters—while at the same time giving a platform to the more insane voices on the right. Following Obama's speech Thursday, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King and outgoing Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann head​ed to the border to stop Obama's plan themselves, although what exactly they plan to do down there is unclear.

Follow Grace Wyler on ​Twitter