Three Takes on Obama’s Immigration Announcement

If you watched the president’s relatively brief statement last night announcing executive action on immigration, you probably saw a calm Obama straightforwardly presenting a decision, albeit somewhat defensively and (in his words more than his manner) a tad defiantly.

But it’s sure being perceived variably. The basic facts were nicely presented by Danny Vinik at TNR:

The move builds upon Obama’s 2012 executive action­­—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—that deferred deportation of 1.2 million undocumented immigrants, so-called DREAMers, and allowed them to work. To qualify for DACA, an undocumented immigrant had to be under the age of 30 and brought to the U.S. as a child before 2007. Around 700,000 people applied for DACA and approximately 600,000 received a two-year renewable grant of deferred status.

Obama’s new action has a few components. It creates a new program for entrepreneurs to come to the U.S., eliminates the Secure Communities program, and shifts law enforcement resources to focus on criminals and those who have recently crossed the border. But the most consequential (and controversial) changes to immigration policy are modeled on his 2012 move. Nicknamed DACA 2.0, it reforms the original program by eliminating the age limit and moving the year of arrival up to 2010. The White House estimates that another 270,000 undocumented immigrants will become eligible for the program. The government will also offer deferred status to undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. more than five years and who are parents of American citizens or lawful permanent residents. That will make approximately four million people eligible for the program. However, it does not include the parents of DREAMers, which many immigration activists wanted. As with DACA, the new action gives work authorizations to the beneficiaries.

“Deferred action isn’t a pathway to citizenship. It’s not a legal status. It simply says for three years, because you are not an enforcement priority, we’re not going to go after you,” a senior administration official said. “While we’re busy going after terrorists and criminals, if you come forward and submit yourself to a criminal background check—assuming you meet the other eligibility requirements—we’ll allow you to work and pay taxes, because we’re not going to prosecute you for this limited period of time.”

Those work authorizations may be the most important part of the program. It allows millions of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, work for a fair pay and receive protection under U.S. law. Under the original DACA program, 61 percent of beneficiaries obtained a new job. Fifty-four percent opened their first bank account and 61 percent obtained a driver’s license. Families that otherwise would have been torn apart by deportations will be kept together. For the nearly all Americans, this action will have no effect whatsoever. But for those who are affected by it, their lives will improve significantly.

And that leads to a second take (via Suzanne Gamboa of NBC News):

Several months ago Janet Murguia, executive director of the National Council of La Raza,referred to Obama as “Deporter in Chief” as frustration built over the lack of action on immigration. But after the President’s speech, Murguia said it was a victory for common sense.

“I thought it was very compelling, very powerful and very reaffirming – this is a milestone moment for so many millions of American families who have lived in the shadows,” Murguia said on MSNBC.

Despite some disappointment that the action did not include the parents of “Dreamers” covered in the first DACA, the reaction among immigration activists and Latinos generally seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. I suspect we”ll hear more praise today from religious leaders, especially Catholic bishops (who quietly signaled support for the move back in September).

And then there’s the third take, exemplified by Ted Cruz, who is now, as in previous moments of ideological passion, become the de facto leader of his party (via The Hill):

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

The ravings of conservatives on this action will probably eliminate the natural defensiveness (and in some cases, timidity) of Democrats on “controversial” actions. I know last night, even as Obama was speaking, I thought of the GOP reaction and said aloud: “Si se puede, jackasses!”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.