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5 questions: Obama’s immigration action

President Barack Obama’s new executive action on immigration, announced Thursday night, is neither the overreach his opponents have criticized nor the sweeping move some supporters have hailed, says a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.


As a practical matter, the significance of the new, temporary protections for certain undocumented immigrants is more political than tangible and probably will attract far fewer participants than estimated, says Assistant Professor Maryam Stevenson, who has more than nine years’ experience as an immigration attorney.

The president’s announcement was not surprising, she says, given that immigration is emerging as a key issue among the American public, one on which Congress has been unable to make progress.

“The president was making more of a political statement than anything else,” Stevenson says. “It gave him an opportunity to go in front of the American people and kind of look like a hero (to his political base). He looks like the good guy, and Congress looks like the bad guy.”

We asked Stevenson to explain further.

What does the president’s order accomplish?

The chief provision means that undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years and are parents of citizens or legal permanent residents will be eligible to apply for work permits and temporarily protected from deportation. Other provisions could offer protections to smaller groups. Deferring deportation does not confer any legal immigration status or create a path to citizenship.

How many people is it likely to affect?

Although most estimates say 4 to 5 million people will be eligible for protection under the new provisions, Stevenson questions whether that many of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants meet the criteria. Perhaps more importantly, many of those eligible will not participate, because the protections could be reversed.

“There are immigration attorneys who will recommend to their clients not to apply,” she says. “When you have a policy like this that’s not firmly rooted in congressional action, essentially what you’re doing is putting yourself on notice to the federal government, ‘Look, I’m here illegally.’ This type of action does not grant any legal status. … A subsequent president could overturn it, and then the federal government would have a list of names and addresses of people to go after.”

Is this a radical or unexpected move?

Not really, Stevenson says. The new order can be viewed as an extension of the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum of 2012, which suspended the deportation of U.S. residents who were brought to the country illegally as children.

“Essentially, all the president is doing is prioritizing which individuals are going to be removed first,” she says. “Two years ago, he put those individuals whom we call ‘Dreamers’ at the very bottom of the list, and he’s now putting those with family relationships to U.S. citizens at the bottom of the list. He’s protecting them against removal, but it’s not anything we haven’t seen before.”

Is it clear that the president has authority to do this?

Yes. “Congress has created a system that’s extremely vague,” Stevenson says. “There’s a lot of executive wiggle room with regard to immigration. Congress has set forth what constitutes legal entry and what constitutes a legal stay, so anything beyond that is up to the executive branch and the various agencies to enforce. … There were fears on the conservative side that he was going to grant amnesty or extend protection to people who don’t have these family relationships, but that’s not within the executive power granted to him under the Constitution; that was not going to happen. … If Congress really has a problem with it, then they need to pass a law.”

Does this change the outlook for comprehensive immigration reform?

No, Stevenson says, because any significant legislation already was unlikely due to the outcome of the November elections.

“After the Republicans took such a strong hold in both the House and Senate, comprehensive reform was dead in the water, so I don’t think the announcement did anything to derail immigration reform,” she says. “If anything it may have sparked a little bit of interest on the part of Republicans to possibly take some piecemeal measures that they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Certainly, they have an opportunity with regard to skilled workers, with regard to entrepreneurial immigration, two things that they can do that won’t necessarily hurt them with their base and also could potentially help with the economy. I think it created an opportunity on that front, but any movement with regard to amnesty or anything like that, I don’t think last night did anything one way or the other.”