4 Million Undocumented People in the U.S. Could Now Become Documented. Here’s How.

Immigrant Immigration Rally American flag

Last night President Obama announced a new executive action on immigration that allows an estimated 4.4 million undocumented people in the U.S. (about 36% of the estimated 12 million current undocumented people) to become “documented.” How does it work? Let’s start with the basics.

What does it mean to be “undocumented” and how does someone become “documented”?

Being undocumented means not having valid documentation to prove that you may remain in the U.S., and means you could be deported.

A person can become documented by obtaining “legal status” if he or she meets certain specific eligibility requirements, although many people don’t qualify for this. If someone can’t get legal status, they may instead be able to become documented by receiving a “pass” from the government, where the government essentially promises not to deport that person for a certain time period.

For example, in 2012, President Obama created a program such that people who came to the U.S. as children before 2007 and are now here illegally may apply for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA), which gives them a 2 year pass from being deported (renewable every 2 years). DACA also gives people a permit to legally work in the U.S., but it does not make them eligible to receive government benefits such as Obamacare.

What does this new executive action specifically do for people?

The new executive action is very similar to the one from about 2 years ago, DACA (see above), but with a much wider range of people eligible to benefit. In fact, one major part of the executive action simply expands the eligibility for the DACA program, and extends protection from deportation to 3 years, along with a work permit. The other major part of the executive action creates a similar program for parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders.Immigrant man holding american flag

Who is eligible to benefit from the executive action?

The new policy applies to two categories of people:

1. Undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders (“legal permanent residents”), who have been in the U.S. for 5 years or more. Note: This won’t be available until Spring 2015.

2. Undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children before January 1, 2010 (expands current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)). Note: Should be available very soon.

What exactly is a Presidential “executive action” and is Obama overstepping his authority here as some claim?

The president’s job is to carry out and enforce federal laws, including immigration laws. He generally has wide latitude as to how he enforces the law, and his decisions on this are called executive actions.

Obama’s executive action here is simply a decision on how to enforce deportations, and he is not the first president to do something like this. Although an estimated 12 million people in the U.S. are undocumented and eligible to be deported, the federal government can’t possibly deport all 12 million, especially not in any reasonable time period. In fact, Congress only provides the Obama administration enough money to deport about 400,000 people per year.

President Obama is merely prioritizing who that 400,000 is that should be deported sooner, including convicted criminals and those who arrived after January 1, 2014; and whose deportation should be temporarily suspended (the two categories of people that benefit from the executive action).

Ultimately, the president’s action can be reversed by Congress, and Obama even called for such a bill last night, though one that would instead provide actual legal status for many undocumented people rather than just deferred action on deportation. Though the Democratic-controlled Senate passed such a bill last year, Republicans have been blocking such action for many months and are unlikely to change course any time soon.

Featured Image: creative commons licensed (BY-ND) flickr photo by OpenSkyMedia: http://flickr.com/photos/jshultz/138696591
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