Immigration Reform

President Obama addresses the nation on immigration reform. Kathleen Arnold, a visiting professor of political science at DePaul University and political theorist and immigration expert who has written a number of books about immigration, and David Applegate, a trial lawyer and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery & John Ltd. and policy advisor for legal affairs for The Heartland Institute, join us to discuss the speech. President Obama’s proposal for immigration reform focuses on four principles: continuing to strengthen the border, streamlining legal immigration, earned citizenship, and cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers.

Watch the full speech below and read the transcript here.

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View a timeline of presidential executive action on immigration.




--Information compiled from the American Immigration Council

Read an interview with Vice President of studies at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Michele Wucker, who previously served as president of the World Policy Institute in New York and wrote the book, LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right, in 2006. 

Michele Wucker. Courtesy of Ana Miyares Photography/The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.Previously, the President has said he couldn’t act on his own to enact immigration reform. What’s different now? What’s changed?

I think the things he’s announcing—or things he’s planning to announce—are things that he can do. Previously, there were probably some other things that he couldn’t do that aren’t included in this [announcement], such as a path to citizenship. The difference between the past and now is it’s been another year of waiting, with advocates hopes going up and being dashed. There was a promising bipartisan deal that came close and failed, and [the] conclusion is if Congress hasn’t done something already, it’s not likely that they will do something.

What can the president do in terms of using executive action for immigration reform? 

The most important thing is deferring deportation, and he’s been very careful about limiting protection to people with family ties to citizens. And he can also provide many of these people with permits to work in the United States. 

Is deferring deportation what you expect him to do? 

That’s the main thing. There are probably some other technical things he may announce as well. We won’t know what they are until they come out, but they’ll probably be too technical, too much insider baseball for a lot of people.

If President Obama were to defer deportation like you mentioned, how many people would that impact? What would that do for immigrants?

The estimates I’ve heard are between 3-5 million, so probably somewhere in the middle of that. It would remove a huge amount of uncertainty for people who are afraid to go out of their houses because they never know if they’ll come back at the end of the day. I think it will provide relief for a lot of employers who depend on people who sometimes don’t have papers, sometimes don’t know if they have papers, and sometimes don’t want to ask a question they don’t want to know the answer. It will provide an economic boost and provide a human boost to people for whom a large load will be taken off their shoulders, at least temporarily.

You mentioned the president would not be able to establish a pathway to citizenship. What other limitations are there to his executive action? 

He’s unable to say definitely that this will be a permanent solution, which it is not. It’s not an ideal solution. However, poll after poll shows the solid majority of Americans are in favor of legalization and a pathway to citizenship. Realistically, once that’s done, it will be much harder to undo than some opponents of immigration reform make it out to be.

Could executive action clear the way for comprehensive immigration reform?

There are two schools of thought on that. I think that some of the relief from executive action would take pressure off from opponents of immigration reform who would never vote for something like that no matter what else it was packaged with. It’s possible that they would be willing to vote for a package of other immigration reforms that do not include that relief. The other side of the argument is that it’s a “poisoned well.” We’ve heard that many times, and it’s a great sound bite. But just because you have a great sound bite, doesn’t mean it’s the majority opinion. There are more moderate voices that we’re not hearing from as much. 

Is there anything you’d like to add about the topic?

Recent polling data [by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May and again in October] showed the most favorable public opinion in decades on immigration. Four out of 10 say large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S. is a critical threat. That’s a huge drop in concern about immigration. It’s very important background to provide in context to the debate now. Less than 50 percent surveyed said controlling and reducing illegal immigration is an important goal for U.S. foreign policy. That’s down significantly since we surveyed in 1994. Some of the reasons why public opinion has calmed is there’s a net negative migration to Mexico, there have been huge investments in border security so far, and Americans seem to be seeing the results of that. The other part of this executive action is to focus existing resources on criminals—people we’d rather see gone—than wasting resources on law-abiding immigrants, who are the vast majority of those who are here.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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