A tinge of disappointment hung in the air at the MECA cultural arts center before the live-stream of President Obama's immigration speech began Thursday night. A small group of undocumented students and families had gathered to hear the long-awaited announcement that Obama would halt the deportations of some immigrants. But as details of Obama's executive action started to trickle out before the address, many began to slowly realize they have family who won't be helped.
Jorge Olvera, a graduate student at the University of Houston, fled violence in Reynosa with his parents and crossed into Texas when he was just 7 years old. The nagging threat of deportation lingered until two years ago, when Obama launched a program halting deportations of immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were kids. "I'd hoped the president would announce something tonight that might help my parents, too," Olvera said. "It looks like that won't happen."
It's expected the executive action announced last night will benefit as many as 5 million immigrants across the country. Despite intense GOP backlash, Obama says he doesn't need congressional action to expand work permits or stay the deportations of parents with kids who are U.S. citizens or have green cards.
It's the kind of unilateral, executive action so-called "Dreamers" like Olvera -- young, undocumented immigrants who would have benefited had the Dream Act passed -- have for years been clamoring for, as dog-whistle politics transformed comprehensive immigration reform, which had seemed completely possible years ago, into a pipe dream.
Carolina Ramirez, a 24-year-old organizer with United We Dream whose parents brought her here from Mexico two decades ago, recalled how undocumented students across the country have organized, protested, and even launched hunger strikes so they could go to college and find work without the daily threat of deportation. Once they got that, they wanted protection for their parents, too. "We're happy in one sense," Ramirez said, "but I think this is still hard to swallow for a lot of us."
Another young woman talked about her mother, who won't qualify for relief. "That she's going to be left out, that just breaks my heart," she said.
Despite the very-predictable cries of "amnesty" from the right, Obama's track record on immigration is a mixed bag no matter how you look at it, whether you're an immigrant-lover or a secure-the-border type. On one hand, Obama launched his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, stalling the deportations of young immigrants who had no control over their status because they were brought to the country as kids. On the other hand, Obama has deported a lot of people. Although deportations started rising under George W. Bush, they hit their high point in the Obama presidency; in 2012 the feds deported more than 400,000 people, the most ever in a single year.
Amid the collective freak-out by Senate and House Republicans, we heard gems like this from Ted Cruz in a Politico op-ed this week: "If he acts by executive diktat, President Obama will not be acting as a president, he will be acting as a monarch." The more-measured Sen. John Cornyn, while warning that Obama's action kills any spirit of bi-partisanship moving forward into the next congress, has already promised that this isn't worth another government shutdown. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, meanwhile, says the GOP is looking for a way to de-fund the executive order when the House votes on a budget bill.
Since debate over this move will only intensify in the weeks and months to come, here are some of the basics you should know about Obama's executive action on immigration:
This will help a huge, but limited, group of undocumented immigrants Nationally, it's estimated there are some 5 million undocumented immigrants who will fit the new guidelines for relief, making this the largest executive action of its kind. Parents with children who are either citizens or green-card holders who have lived in the country for more than five years won't be deported if they pay taxes and can pass a background check. In Texas, there are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, but it's still unclear exactly how many would actually qualify under the new deferred-action guidelines. In the Houston area, many thousands might be eligible for help, says Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Center's immigration clinic.
This is certainly a huge step. "While these are just ball-park figures, it's clear a lot of people could be helped," Hoffman said. Many parents could live without the threat of deportation -- at least for three years -- and get permits to legally work. Many parents, instead of constantly worrying about a traffic stop that could trigger a deportation order, might actually be able to live semi-normal lives, Hoffman says.
In addition, the president's action removes the previous age cap for so-called Dreamers; previously, only those under 31 could qualify. Those Dreamers (defined by the government as anyone who came to the country before their 16th birthday) seeking to stay will be required to have lived in the U.S. since January 2010, instead of the previous January 2007 deadline.
But like DACA two years ago, this would be only for immigrants with a squeaky-clean record. That means even for immigrants whose only charge was for criminal re-entry -- being deported, and then being caught back in the United States -- they're probably out of luck.
And, as stated above, parents of so-called Dreamers won't qualify. "It was a very difficult line to draw, but one that the lawyers felt we had to draw," one White House aid said in a news briefing, according to several reports.
Hoffman also cautions that anytime an announcement like this is made, sketchy notarios often come out of the woodwork to "prey on the confusion a lot of people are going to be under." Anyone who thinks they or their family members might qualify for relief should make sure they go to a licensed immigration attorney or legal aid clinic, he says.
"This is not going to be an automatic type of thing," Hoffman said. Forms must be filed, fees must be paid, and background checks must be done. The program probably won't go into effect until next spring.
Presidents have done this before Ted Cruz's "monarch" comments aside, it's pretty clear the president can take executive action to halt the deportations of certain immigrants (whether he should risk alienating the GOP on the eve of a new congress is a whole other matter). As Vox points out, previous presidents have done this no less than four times.
"There's tons of precedence for this, actually" Gordon Quan, a longtime immigration attorney in Houston, told us. The president's action doesn't change the law, Quan says, but rather tweaks federal immigration enforcement priorities. In his speech, Obama announced he'd bolster border security ("If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up," Obama declared) and that immigration agents will focus even more on deporting "gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids."
"This just gives some people a work permit, a breath of fresh air and relief for a few years ... or as long as Obama's president," Quan said.
Regardless of whether past presidents have taken executive action to stall deportations, there is one little thing that makes Obama's announcement a little awkward. Immigrant rights groups for years have pleaded with Obama to halt deportations of immigrants with deep ties to the country -- like undocumented parents with children born in the United States. And while outwardly sympathetic to their concerns, Obama had insisted he didn't have the power to do so and that only comprehensive immigration reform (re: action from congress) could really fix the country's labyrinthine system of immigration laws.
So, Obama's probably wishing he didn't say things like this...
Evidently, the president has had a change of heart -- or he's decided to charge head-first into that "screw it, let's get shit done" lame-duck phase of his final term.
This is not "immigration reform," nor is it "amnesty"
"President Obama's new executive action is an important step toward much needed immigration reform, but it is also most important to remember that this is not 'reform,' nor is it 'amnesty,'" Hoffman at UH's immigration clinic told us. "It will not provide any legal status to anyone or a pathway to legal status. For that, Congress still must act."
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One burning question is how the president's action might impact the prospects of actual immigration reform down the road. Not that long ago, there was broad bi-partisan support for bills that would have brought about extensive reform. The Dream Act failed in the Senate in 2010 only because it fell five votes short of the 60-vote super-majority needed to pass anything in congress these days. Last year, the Senate passed a major reform bill by an overwhelming majority (68-32) only to have the bill sputter out in the House.
Quan told us he's optimistic the president's action might force congress to finally act. "I'm hoping this could be the impetus to congress to say, 'Look, now what do we do with these people? We need to look at a long-term solution.'"
Hoffman was a bit more cautious: "The fact is congress has had many opportunities and congress has failed to act."
Oh, and Texas will probably sue the feds (again) Get ready for another round of Texas v. Obama. Before the president even came out with the details of his plan, Gov. Rick Perry declared there is a "very real possibility" that Texas could sue the administration. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott (who described his duties as state Attorney General this way: "I go to the office, I sue Obama and I go home") has already said he's prepared to "immediately challenge President Obama in court."