President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the deportation of about 5 million undocumented immigrants has sparked a new debate over immigration reform and the powers of the presidency.
The president’s executive action Thursday does not extend to all of the roughly 13 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, but to undocumented parents of children who are U.S. citizens.
Undocumented immigrants will be protected from deportation and will be able to apply for work permits provided they are parents of children born in the U.S., pass a background check and pay taxes.
“Specifically, the president was thinking about undocumented parents of children who are United States citizens, so this is about keeping families together,” Penn State law professor Victor Romero said. “He’s not giving them special license to be citizens. He just won’t make them priority for deportation.”
Republican legislators decried Obama’s actions as partisan politics.
“The president had two years where his party controlled the executive branch and both chambers of Congress, yet did nothing,” U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson said in a statement. “We agree, the immigration system needs an overhaul, but moving unilaterally is not going to achieve that end. Rather, this action will serve to estrange the legislative branch, which is responsible for passing and changing the laws of our country. The president’s actions show that he is more focused on partisan politics than working with Congress to address the true need for reform.”
Penn State law professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia was the lead writer of a Sept. 3 letter to Obama that was signed by 136 law professors from around the country. The letter took the position that the president had legal grounds to protect undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation.
“President Obama is on strong legal ground in the way that it’s grounded in the United States Constitution, precedent set from the U.S. Supreme Court, the immigration statute created by Congress and the Department of Homeland Security’s regulations and policy documents,” Sivaprasad Wadhia said.
The president’s actions will not enable permanent residency or citizenship for undocumented parents of citizen children, which only Congress can pass for the president to sign into law.
Romero said the president’s actions put pressure on Congress to act on immigration reform.
“The interesting thing is it’s not just this administration, because George W. Bush was also in favor of immigration reform, because it’s been broken a while and even under him in 2006 and 2008 Congress didn’t do anything, so it’s a president-versus-Congress issue,” Romero said. “If Congress doesn’t like it, they can act. This won’t go away for at least a few years, so it puts pressure on Congress then to pass immigration laws if they don’t like these actions.”
Undocumented immigrants could be more easily deported if a future president reverses Obama’s actions.
“If you have a new president that doesn’t like these deferred actions, they can remove them, and then they have a list of these people that would then be deportable, so that is a risk,” Romero said.