Obama makes a small – but necessary – first step towards comprehensive immigration reform

President Obama announces executive action on immigration reform.
President Obama announces executive action on immigration reform.

In a speech — less than 20 minutes long and snubbed by the country’s major cable networks — President Barack Obama made history (again).

In 2008, Obama promised constituents comprehensive immigration reform within his first term, but a combination of Republican obstructionism and a prioritization of other issues (like healthcare reform) led to the tabling of the issue. By Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, immigration activists were frustrated and alarmed, Obama’s inaction coupled with his administration’s record high rate of returns and removals led to many on the Progressive Left to start labeling him the “Deporter-In-Chief”. A multiracial coalition of activists including prominent AAPI civil rights organizations and undocumented immigrants such as Jose Antonio Vargas and Ju Hong lobbied tirelessly to pressure Obama and the Left to address immigration reform before 2016. They held the rest of us accountable by refusing to allow the fight for comprehensive immigration reform to leave the spotlight.

Last night, these activists should be taking a victory lap, because last night President Obama took the first step towards that promise of comprehensive immigration reform. And, while it is a small step with many caveats, it’s a necessary one.

Demonstrator Ruben Bernal, who recently graduated from San Jose State University, rallies for the Dream Act in downtown San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, June 29, 2011. The Dream Act legislation would provide a path to legalization for certain young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The bill has been introduced several times in Congress without success. A Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the legislation on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Demonstrator Ruben Bernal, who recently graduated from San Jose State University, rallies for the Dream Act in downtown San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, June 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

In his immigration address, President Obama announced his intention to take executive action on immigration reform, loosely presented in three broad strokes: 1) to increase resources for securing of America’s northern and southern borders; 2) to address administrative backlog that profoundly hinders the documented entry and retention of highly-skilled immigrants; and 3) to establish a system for deportation relief that is estimated to bring over 5 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

Obama’s focus on visa backlogs is of profound interest because I am one of this nation’s millions of people living in the United States on a temporary or permanent resident visa. In fact, more than two-thirds of AAPI are foreign-born immigrants; many have first-hand experience navigating this country’s tortuous immigration system. In a press conference held yesterday by a diverse coalition of civil rights organizations, Mee Moua (@mee_moua) of Asian Americans Advancing Justice estimated that over 1.8 million people from Asian countries  are currently stuck by the backlog waiting for a visa. Average processing times for a visa to obtain legal entry into the United states can extend months or even years; those waiting often find themselves in a sort of immigration limbo, separated from family and sometimes prohibited from work or travel.

From the Center for American Progress.
From the Center for American Progress.

President Obama’s executive action will profoundly address this visa backlog problem, one that typically receives little attention in the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. He vows to streamline the work visa application process, to introduce work authorization portability for those awaiting legal permanent resident status (a status that depends upon employer credentials and due to the long wait times for visa approval has left many applicants stuck in the same job for years unable to switch to a new position), and to expand work visa opportunities for highly-skilled immigrants.

These first steps represent a profound sea change for those of us who are currently here by the grace of this country’s often confounding and frustrating immigration system; not only will these efforts expand economic growth in this country by inviting and encouraging skilled workers to join the American workforce, but it takes steps to end some of the more inhumane consequences of the immigration system. Under the current system, visa applicants are unable to leave the country under any circumstance: stories abound of immigrants forced to miss weddings and funerals of loved ones held in their countries of origin because international travel will invalidate their visa application. President Obama’s executive action deserves applause for the relief it offers for this nation’s documented immigrants.

Immigration rights activist Ju Hong heckles the president, demanding action on immigration reform.
Immigration rights activist Ju Hong heckles the president, demanding action on immigration reform for undocumented immigrants.

Perhaps more controversial of President Obama’s changes, however, is his introduction of a system to offer deportation relief for a subset of the country’s undocumented immigrants. Under Obama’s executive action, undocumented immigrants who have been in this country for longer than five years or who are the parents of domestic-born children can register for protection from ICE removal if they agree to pay taxes and a fine for their undocumented entry. Here are the details:

  • The applicant must either have been here for longer than 5 years, or be the parent of an American-born child born before November 20, 2014 (i.e. before this action was announced).
  • The applicant must pass a criminal background check.
  • The applicant must agree to submit biometric information for registration.
  • The applicant must agree to pay a tax and fines.
  • The applicant will receive a three year guarantee of deferred action regarding deportation, and simultaneous work approval.

In addition to this action, President Obama expanded deportation protection for DREAMers to include those who had been excluded from the original deferred action protections due to their age or the date of their arrival. He also announced an end to the Secure Communities program, which gave ICE officials access to fingerprint records obtained by local law enforcement, in essence deputizing local police as immigration officers while driving undocumented immigrants deeper underground.

Here, too, there is a lot to praise in President Obama’s announcement. Above all, many (but sadly not all) undocumented immigrants — including the country’s estimated 1.3 – 1.5 million AAPI undocumented — will finally be invited out of the shadows and have a mechanism through which they can participate openly in society. Through this system, qualifying undocumented immigrants will no longer be afraid to work, to attend school, to travel, or to call police when they are in danger; all fears that make members of America’s undocumented community highly vulnerable to criminal exploitation. Many estimate that Obama’s announcement could impact over 5 million undocumented workers, most of them Latino and/or AAPI.


But, of course, there is plenty of room for reservation with Obama’s announcement of executive action, as well — all of it stemming from the central problem that this landmark action on immigration reform is occurring by executive order, not Congressional action.

By simple virtue of how these actions are being ordered — through the Executive, not the Legislative branch — all of Obama’s announcements are inherently temporary and limited. The White House has the power to affect enforcement of existing laws, not the power to rewrite law. When Obama leaves office in 2016, his successor — whomever he or she might be — will have the power to revoke this executive order in a shorter amount of time than it took President Obama to announce it.

The amount of progress announced by Obama last night is small, but important. It signals to Congress, and to the American people, that immigration reform is a necessary political priority. It demands better behaviour from the Republican-led Congress in the face of its ongoing inaction on this issue. And, above all, it proves to the American public that we can welcome undocumented immigrants into American society, and the country will not culturally or politically implode.

But, for Obama’s announcement to have any sort of lasting effect, we must treat this announcement as only a first step. We need lasting legislative changes to completely overhaul this country’s broken immigration system, and for that we must turn our attention back to Congress, and specifically on those we elected and re-elected earlier this month. The ball is now in their court; will they stand on the right side of history?

Meanwhile, we on the Progressive Left must make a commitment, and we must make it now. Whomever we hand the White House to in 2016 will make or break Obama’s executive action on immigration, and whomever we send to Congress will write the laws that cement immigration reform for generations.

We must therefore commit — today — to having a long memory.  We must commit to redoubling our efforts in working over the next two years for immigrant justice. We must commit to vote on the immigration reform issue. We must commit to the promise that President Obama’s executive action truly is only the first step in this nation’s journey towards comprehensive immigration reform.

President Obama’s announcement was a great first step. Now, it’s time to take the next one.

Act Now! Stand in support of immigrant justice! Check out the following websites for rallies and other actions you can participate in.

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  • Junweiwei

    The presentation of the issue is not ok.

    You have to understand the fundamental difference between undocumented migrants who are associated with an oceanic border like API’s background and undocumented migrants who are associated with a border minority (Mexican-American).

    The American conservatives fears the takeover of former Mexcican territory with an uncontrolled inflow of undocumented Mexican. But of course there are division among the whites between industrial sectors who needs Mexican day labourer. American economists occupied themselves with the coordination effects of undocumented border migration between USA/Mexico in the business cycles. In the community of development economists and naturally the World Bank, IMF and UNO there is a remittance mantra, because remittances from migrants are much higher than foreign aid. The reported figures are only from established migrants with citizenship rights or official recognized foreign employees. The real monetary stream from undocumented migrants are a dark figure and some folk think that they are in the same order as the official figure.

    The problem with the oppression of undocumented border migrants is that their illegal status make it impossible to include their income sharing with their family back in Mexico in the actual rating note of Mexico. That’s why Mexico has a very bad rating note and must pay high interest and use USD for payback the interest to lenders.

    Actually you must estimate the money supply of domestic currency and foreign currency to do proper monetary policy. With the presence of high undocumented remittance streams it is impossible and black markets are established to change Peso with USD.

    We know from political science that the circulation of remittance dollar have similar multiplying effects like tourism dollar upon local economies. In the case of Mexico City we know that the practice of buying votes are diminishing, because of income sharing of Mexican American/Mexican in the USA with kinship in Mexico City. Very simple sumarized – under certain conditions transnational migrants have without consciously knowing it a democratic dividend that can be enhanced with external voting rights.

    Similar mechanism is observable with API kin states. There are differences among states because Red China normally do not try to make future securization deals with remittances as underlying, patents, export receivable…They simply enjoy the enhanced tax revenues without giving the transnatioal families something back for their tax dollars paid by the transnational household. The issue is completely different for the Philippines where about 10% of the populations are literally sold by the labour broker state on international labour markets for seafaring, nursering, housemaid works,…

    Housemaids living inhouse with the employer family are actually modern slaves if they have no documents. The same thing can be said about Filipino seafarers on Japanese ships and Western ships. The over-exploitation of Filipino housemaids are a strange form of care migration which enable mostly white women do make a career with freeing them from housewife’s duties. The oceanic trade with outsourcing manufacturing can obviously not work without the high percentage of Filipino seafarers.

    Transnational families are a basic institution to explain the stability of global capitalism beside other non-market institutions like the different state agencies and supranational institutions. It is not possible to understand the stability of nation states or the development path of nation states without talking about transnational migrations.

    What white American conservatives try to do is picking a indispensable minority for the functioning of global capitalism against actually a dispensable black inner minority. That will actually work, because the building of political and cultural capital enable black leaders to make other forms of modern wage slavery invisible – even if they are actually very similar in the consequences. Black nativism is a tool for white politician to harm everybody within the Pacific Rim from Pacific Asia to Latin America. White can pass the buck of using racist language to black nativism, because they can correctly assume that migration and undocumented migration hurts black poor wages.

    Well, this is now a problem of political strategy and human rights. The human rights for migrants are the least ratified one among all human rights convention. Look at the signature states


    No country of the Western hemisphere among them !

    The issue is very difficult, because liberals manage to get hegemony with their macroeconomic and mathematic model platonism and try to remodel every supranational institution and national institution with their flawed theories. They even managed to catch discrimination policy with market-based diversity management.

    At the heart of the problem is that we have a social division between more established diaspora with US or maybe double-citizenship and invisible, undocumented migrants. The more established one fears that the association with undocumented migrants hurts the acknowledgement of their status as insider in white middleclass. API call them FOB. There are in every transnational minority group derogatory terms for these newcomers.

    One of the most fascinating mechanism about undocumented and documented migrants and diasporas are that during natural disasters when thousand maybe hundred thousands of kni folks dies that suddenly the remittance streams spiked. We see it in the monthly data about documented migrants remittances, but we know nothing about undocumented migrants remittance behaviour from more quantitativ social sciences – we have a few field observation from ethnographers.

    As I said remittance flows generates savings and shift the supply graph and hence generates more emplyoment and tax revenues. During natural disasters there resource are needed remittance stream are one of the most reliable one for protecting basic human rights. And this is actually very sad if you compare it with the ineffectiveless of supranational bureaucracies like FAO, UNDP, UNICEF…

    So why are undocumented migrants who actually provide resource streams for legal systems of at least two countries can get no rights for themselves and have to queue behind Black Americans.

    This is actually a disgrace for API politics that they do not build coalitions among the participant organization of the World Social Forum to pressure supranational and national agencies.

    Additionaly API’s organization who have their founding myths in the 1960s with coalition building with the Balck civil right movement never learnt anything about themselves and the folk they claim to represent from methodological sound social science, macroeconomy, econometrics, psychology, social science, economic history, economic geography, development economics to see the flaws about the discourse about migration.

    Additionaly API have the dumb habit to do too much in leveling down differences with identity politics/rhetorics, instead of thinking about coalition building with institutional frameworks, voting rights,…

    Same dumb behaviour can be said about API cultural production who cannot utilize modern transmedia narratology to get a better and coherent output with short fiction, Graphic novel, music videos, science fiction, dime novels,…Or even actually very easy to produce Hyperfiction or Interactive Fiction.

    It is possible to overrun them with Magical Realism and very bad pop culture K-Pop, J-Pop and Martial Arts crap from Pacific Asia.

    API dumbass sit down and learn something – and try to carve out a own voice, because it is needed and do not imitate Black Americans !

  • texasranger

    Immigration Reform..

    Obama‘s Secret Plan – Immigration Reform “Task Force of New Americans”….

    Barack Obama and his administration appear to be social engineering us into a new America.

    Obama’s Immigration Reform does not just cover those who receive amnesty, it’s all the immigrants he is transporting from all over the Middle East-Se, Africa, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Congo, Cuba and so on.

    Listen to this shocking and frightening interview:

    Full Story