Tonight, President Obama will deliver a speech to the American public outlining his plans for immigration reform.
The president has stated on numerous occasions that his decision to address immigration unilaterally (ie. via executive order) is a result of Congressional inaction on the issue.
Obama’s (mostly Republican) opponents in Congress say that the move is unlawful and unconstitutional. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said that it will, “poison the well” for future cooperation between the president and the new Republican-dominated Congress on a comprehensive immigration plan.
So what’s actually in the president’s plan? Well, we’ll have to wait for the speech to find out all the specifics, but a few basic details have already leaked out to the public.
The biggest and most controversial part of Obama’s proposal is a plan to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. from deportation.
This part of the plan is aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants who have had children born in the U.S. (these children are U.S. citizens by birth). Many immigrant advocacy groups have complained that the current deportation system often separates families, forcing deported parents to leave their children with relatives or in foster care.
Those undocumented immigrants would not be given citizenship or any form of legal permanent residency (like a “green card” for example). Instead, they would be shielded from deportation (as long as they pass a series of background checks and other requirements) and issued work permits and Social Security numbers that would enable them to legally work and pay taxes.
Obama is also considering extending this deportation protection to other undocumented immigrants who have been living in the country for long periods of time and have established themselves in their communities.
The move would be an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which was created by Obama in 2012 to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children from deportation. So far, DACA has approved more than 580,000 undocumented immigrants.
The President will probably address a number of other details related to immigration in his speech, including border security. On Wednesday (November 19), Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a speech that the president’s plan will also include improved security along the border, though he didn’t mention any specifics.
Obama is also expected to make changes to an immigration enforcement policy known as “Secure Communities”. This program allows local police to check the identity of anyone they’ve arrested and compare it to national immigration databases. If they find immigration violations, they can hold that person until an agent from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can come pick them up.
A number of local politicians and law enforcement agencies have already tried to opt out of the program, saying that having regular police check immigration status undermines the fundamental trust between officers and citizens.
The Obama administration says that their plan will focus the government’s limited immigration enforcement funding on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records – the ones who pose the greatest threat to local and/or national security.
The White House also cited the 400,000 people being deported annually by the Department of Homeland Security as proof that the administration is fulfilling its enforcement requirements.
So does Obama have the authority to act unilaterally on immigration? The White House certainly thinks so, citing laws that give the president the authority to carry out immigration enforcement and deport those in violation.
Most Congressional Republicans disagree though, arguing that the president’s executive powers were meant to be used on a case-by-case basis. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said that the president was “playing with matches” and is “going to get burned.”
Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, is actually one of the strongest supporters of plans to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants. But he too expressed disapproval for the president’s plan to act unilaterally, saying,
“It would be like pulling the pin off a hand grenade and tossing it into the middle of the room.”
But regardless as to how the Republicans feel about the president’s new immigration plans, there’s little they can do to stop him.
Some Republicans have suggested impeachment, though this is highly unlikely to succeed since it requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. Republicans have also flirted with the idea of suing Obama for violating the Constitution when using his executive powers, though there is no precedent for this type of action and a formal complaint as yet to be filed.
What’s most likely to happen is that Congressional Republicans will use the upcoming budget debate (federal government funding expires on December 11) as leverage against the president. According to USA Today,
“Six GOP senators, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 62 Republican members of the House, led by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., have signed letters calling on congressional leaders to use that budget debate to de-fund the president’s order. Formally legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants requires federal workers to spend time and money on the process, and these Republicans want to craft budget bills that expressly forbid money being used to implement the president’s order.”
But many in the Republican leadership, like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, are wary of repeating the mistakes that led to the government shutdown in October 2013 (which was caused by a Republican bid to defund Obamacare).
So while Republicans may be in agreement over their opposition to Obama’s plan, there’s still plenty of debate within the GOP ranks about how best to oppose it.
One thing’s for sure: the battle over immigration reform will be very contentious, with both parties trying to gain popularity amongst a growing political demographic (Latinos) while also keeping their old constituencies happy.
It will likely be a long while before we settle on one long-term strategy to deal with the issue.