What to Expect From Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

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Young boys stand across the street from the White House to participate in a "Children's Rally and Conversation with America" to call on President Obama to provide immediate relief to millions of undocumented parents, workers and neighbors on July 28, 2010 in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC.   AFP PHOTO / Tim Sloan (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: TIM SLOAN/2010 AFP

President Obama said he would take executive action on immigration before the end of the year, and now he plans to outline the specifics of his plan in a prime-time address on Thursday night. Details that have leaked suggest the move could protect 4 to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Here’s a guide for those who want to understand what will likely be the most significant change in U.S. immigration policy since the mid ‘80s, or those who are merely curious about why Republicans are fuming about “Emperor Obama.”

What is Obama expected to do?
Obama will announce that he is providing relief to various groups of undocumented immigrants through executive action. The exact details are unknown, but he’s expected to offer temporary protected status to the parents and spouses of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. They must have no criminal record and have lived in the U.S. for a certain number of years (probably five). It’s estimated that there are about 3.71 million people in this group, according to the Washington Post.

About a million additional people would be affected by other changes, including an expansion of the 2012 program that allowed “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, to avoid deportation. Obama will probably increase the maximum current age from 30, and the maximum arrival age from 16, but the precise age limits are unknown.

Obama is also likely to announce some other shifts in immigration policy, including increasing visas for high-tech workers, reforming federal immigrant detention procedures, and measures to improve border security.

What isn’t included?
The plan is not expected to include protections for the parents of Dreamers, or farm workers. None of the undocumented immigrants allowed to stay in the country will have a path to citizenship or be eligible for federal benefits, such as subsidies for Obamacare.

Where can I watch the address?
Not on any of the major broadcast networks! The White House is miffed that when they put out feelers earlier this week, ABC, CBS, and NBC weren’t interested in running the speech. “In 2006, Bush gave a 17 minute speech that was televised by all three networks that was about deploying 6,000 national guard troops to the border. Obama is making a 10 minute speech that will have a vastly greater impact on the issue. And none of the networks are doing it,” a senior administration official told Politico.

The 8 p.m. ET address will air on PBS, cable news networks, and, perhaps most important, on Telemundo and Univision. The latter is delaying the Latin Grammys broadcast for the speech, and the White House might have picked Thursday to reach the large number of Hispanics tuning in for the show.

What has the White House said so far?
In a Facebook video posted on Wednesday afternoon, Obama announced that he’d be addressing the nation, and simultaneously enraged those passionate about Oval Office decorum by sitting on his desk sans jacket. “What I’m going to be laying out is the things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system work better, even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem,” Obama said.

Oh yeah, what about that immigration reform bill in Congress?
White House officials say Obama is only taking executive action because the House failed to pass the immigration reform bill approved by the Senate last year. “Legislative action is always preferable,” Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said at the National Press Club on Wednesday. “But we have waited for Congress to act, and the Congress has not acted. It can’t be that we’re not allowed to lift a finger to fix our broken immigration system. And we will.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the lead authors of the Senate bill, taunted House Republicans about their inaction. “There’s one more chance: Just put the bill on the floor, Speaker Boehner,” Schumer said. “Pass the bill and we will not even have to debate executive action.”

Does Obama have the legal authority to do this?
He thinks so, though that wasn’t always the case. Republicans have been circulating a list of 22 times Obama said that on immigration he’s already done everything in his power. However, administration officials say the specific actions Obama is taking are “legally unassailable.” As the Washington Post explains, much of Obama’s argument relies on prosecutorial discretion, or “the widely accepted principle that law enforcement officers are responsible for choosing where to focus their efforts.”

There’s also a Republican precedent for Obama’s executive action. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush extended protections to family members who weren’t covered by the 1986 immigration reform law, and their actions weren’t considered very controversial at the time.

What do the Republicans say?
They think what Obama’s likely to propose goes well beyond focusing on deporting criminals before Dreamers and amounts to Obama unilaterally rewriting immigration law. “If ‘Emperor Obama’ ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue — and many others,” said Michael Steel, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

What happens next?
The GOP is already considering a range of options to stop Obama, including filing a lawsuit against him, passing legislation that would specifically block his immigration action next year, and shutting down the government again.

A few have suggested Obama’s executive action may be grounds for impeachment, and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama said the president may deserve prison time, as it’s a felony to help people illegally enter the U.S.“At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president’s conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America,” he said. “That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it.”

Other Republicans are pushing a more cautious strategy. “Our response has to be measured — can’t capitulate, can’t overreact,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, who worked on the Senate legislation. “Impeachment or shutting down the entire government would be an unwise move.”

So the next few weeks should be exciting. The president’s executive action could push Congress to finally pass an immigration reform bill or leave “Emperor Obama” rotting in a prison cell.