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President Obama Breaks Immigration Impasse with Sweeping Executive Action

President Obama Breaks Immigration Impasse with Sweeping Executive Action

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New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras reacts to President Obama's executive action on immigration. (Photo: Office of Julissa Ferreras)

As years-long congressional gridlock on immigration persisted throughout 2014, President Obama in November sidestepped Congress and announced sweeping measures to overhaul key aspects of the U.S. immigration system through executive action.

The measures, including steps to shield as many as 5.2 million of the nation’s estimated 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation according to Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates, jolted the immigration debate and plunged relations between the White House and congressional Republicans to new lows, prompting GOP calls to use every tool at the party’s disposal to block the executive actions.

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Announced just days after Republicans seized control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, President Obama’s actions immediately set off a political firestorm. While Democrats celebrated the move as a bold and necessary response to remedy the stasis on immigration that has existed for years, Republicans reacted to the announcement with fury, calling the president’s actions a lawless grab for “administrative amnesty.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the move “damaging to the presidency itself.” It is all but certain that immigration will be a flashpoint between the executive and legislative branches—and between Democrats and Republicans—for the remainder of the president’s term.

The clamor has underscored how far the political parties have drifted apart on immigration. Over the last 18 months, growing support for legislative fixes to the immigration system among establishment Republicans in the wake of the 2012 presidential election largely dissipated as lawmakers tacked to the right ahead of the midterms. Meanwhile, pressure on Democrats, and particularly the White House, to ameliorate the status of millions of unauthorized immigrants and make business-friendly changes to the legal immigration system reached new heights in 2014.

Reforms via Executive Action

The Obama administration’s November executive actions could accomplish the most significant changes to immigration policy in more than 20 years, touching all major facets of the system—from the intractable issue of illegal immigration, to legal immigration, and to border and enforcement policies.

Under new measures to provide relief from deportation to unauthorized immigrants, as many as 3.7 million unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the United States for five or more years and are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents will be eligible for a new deferred action program, which provides relief from deportation and work authorization for a period of three years. Additionally, the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, launched in 2012, will expand, covering potentially as many as 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, according to MPI.

The Obama administration actions also modify the priorities for deportation, include measures to strengthen border security, and scale back cooperation between federal immigration authorities and state and local law enforcement agencies. The executive action announcement will reduce the barriers to a green card for certain eligible unauthorized immigrants, increase immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs, expand opportunities for highly skilled foreign workers, and promote naturalization.

Getting from There to Here

The roots of President Obama’s executive actions are grounded in early campaign promises to prioritize immigration during his first year in office, and a missed opportunity to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation during this session of Congress. In June 2013, a sweeping reform bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with a strong bipartisan majority, but was shunted aside in the Republican-led House in favor of piecemeal bills that passed House committees but did not reach the House floor. House GOP leaders briefly raised hopes for legislative action in January 2014 by releasing a set of Republican principles for immigration reform that they intended to advance; days later, the plan was shelved amid strong opposition from conservatives.

Confronting unlikely prospects for legislative progress and growing desperation to curtail record-high deportation levels under the Obama administration, which reached the 2-million mark this year, immigrant-rights activists shifted their attention to the White House. By February, a chorus of Democratic allies began calling on the Obama administration to reduce deportations, redirecting pressure tactics such as sit-ins, marches, and hunger strikes from Congress to the executive branch.

Although President Obama responded in March by promising to take steps soon to make the administration’s immigration enforcement policies “more humane,” the deadlines for action changed and changed again. After first suspending action in April to give Congress one more chance to pass immigration legislation, the president announced in July that by summer’s end, he would “fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.” However in September, after a surge of Central American children arriving at the U.S.- Mexico border touched off a political and public uproar and amid concerns that executive action could cost Democrats control of the Senate in November, the plan was again delayed. In the face of these setbacks, advocacy groups further escalated their activism and demands.

On November 20, President Obama unveiled a range of executive actions touching upon different facets of the immigration system, announcing that because the House refused to act on the Senate immigration bill or advance legislation of its own, he would use his authority to move forward. Latino and immigrant advocacy groups, whose constituents are a powerful Democratic voting bloc, undoubtedly played a critical role in pressuring the president to act.

Looking Ahead

Executive action has enormous implications for the immigration debate. It remains to be seen whether a newly Republican-controlled Congress will succeed in blocking implementation of key parts of the plan. Congressional leaders averted a showdown over immigration in a must-pass spending bill in December, but by only funding the Department of Homeland Security through February, the fight surely will be joined again in 2015. Many are also waiting to see if the president’s action will ignite a new immigration reform debate in Congress. Some Republicans view action on immigration as the vehicle to make inroads with Latino voters and improve the party’s chances of winning the White House in 2016, while others remain adamantly opposed to anything other than more immigration enforcement. Should Republicans address immigration in the 114th Congress, it is not known whether Democrats will join them at the negotiating table or prefer to keep the issue alive for the 2016 presidential elections in an effort to draw a contrast between the two parties and maintain their edge with Latino voters.

Executive action may also face danger on the legal front. A coalition of 24 states led by Texas has filed a lawsuit challenging that the president’s actions are unconstitutional and requesting an immediate injunction. Although the Obama administration asserts that it is on solid legal ground, more litigation is expected.

As the administration’s focus now shifts to implementation of these executive actions, questions will arise about immigrants’ interest in applying for deferred action. Given the temporary nature of the programs shielding eligible unauthorized immigrants from deportation, Republican attempts to undo the executive actions, and uncertainty about whether future presidents would continue the deferred action programs, many potential applicants may hesitate to come forward. Debates will also be underway in state legislatures in 2015, where officials may consider whether to extend to recipients of deferred action eligibility for benefits such as health-care coverage, drivers’ licenses, and in-state tuition at universities.


 MPI Research



Migration Policy Institute (MPI). 2014. MPI: As Many as 3.7 Million Unauthorized Immigrants Could Get Relief from Deportation under Anticipated New Deferred Action Program. Press release, November 20, 2014. Available Online.

Office of House Speaker John Boehner. 2014. Standards for Immigration Reform. January 28, 2014. Available Online.

Parker, Ashley. 2014. Boehner Says Obama’s Immigration Action Damages Presidency. New York Times, November 21, 2014. Available Online.

Shear, Michael D. 2014. Obama Delays Immigration Action, Yielding to Democratic Concern. New York Times, September 6, 2014. Available Online.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2014. Fixing Our Broken Immigration System Through Executive Action - Key Facts. Last updated December 5, 2014. Available Online.

The White House. Immigration. Accessed December 1, 2014. Available Online.