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Government Affairs: The next move on immigration reform

December 2, 2014 -  By

government-affairs-blogOn Nov. 20, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions that would defer deportation for an estimated 4.5 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.

The executive actions had been anticipated since last spring, but the Obama administration postponed taking action to give Congress the opportunity to act on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013, but it has languished in the House since then.

When it became clear Congress was not going to act on immigration reform, the president announced his deportation deferral plan.

The plan

To scratch the surface, here are five key initiatives of the president’s plan:

1. DACA expansion: The plan expands the population eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to young people who came to the U.S. before turning 16 years old and have been present since Jan. 1, 2010, extending the period of DACA and work authorization from two years to three years.

2. DAPA introduced: The new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program allows parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been present in the country since Jan. 1, 2010 to request deferred action and employment authorization for three years, provided they pass required background checks.

3. Provisional waivers extended: Provisional waivers of unlawful presence were expanded to include the spouses, sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents and sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.

4. Call for program improvements: The plan calls for modernizing, improving and clarifying immigrant and non-immigrant programs for businesses, foreign investors, researchers, inventors and skilled foreign workers to grow the economy and create jobs.

5. Citizenship support: The plan also promotes citizenship education and public awareness for lawful permanent residents. It provides an option for naturalization applicants to use credit cards to pay the application fee.

The downfalls

Still, the president’s executive actions don’t address all facets of irrigation reform. The H-2A and the H-2B guest worker programs will be unaffected, for better or worse.

In addition, status under the executive actions will not be granted automatically. Undocumented immigrants must step forward and apply for status through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Although it is estimated that 4.5 million may be eligible for deferred status under the executive actions, how many may actually step forward and apply is a big question. Undocumented immigrants are mistrustful of the government. They may be fearful that coming into the open and applying for deferred status may subject them to deportation or other enforcement action at a later time.

The deferred deportation status, if granted, is good for three years, when it must then be renewed. Also, since there is much controversy over the president’s action, some fear it could be overturned when the president leaves office in two years, or sooner if overturned by court action.

The impact on employers is uncertain at this time, too. Employer I-9 audits by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of DHS have been continuing, and there is no indication at his point from DHS that they will stop. It is unclear what will happen if an I-9 audit reveals some employees who are undocumented, but have applied for or are eligible for deferred status under the president’s administrative actions, for example.

Hopefully, more information will be coming from USCIS, ICE and DHS in the coming weeks to clarify some of these questions.

Republican reaction

Republican leadership reaction to the president’s actions was swift and negative. Speaker John Boehner said Obama was “damaging the presidency itself.”

In reaction to the president’s plan, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed, “When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats (in January), they will act.” Republicans won a majority in the Senate in the November elections.

The potential actions the Republican Congress might take have varied widely, some have suggested. Some have called for another government shutdown, although leadership has tried to downplay that possibility. Others are calling for impeachment of the president, while others have called for defunding the parts of the DHS that would administer the deportation deferral programs.

Not heard in the options being discussed among Republicans is actually passing an immigration reform bill that would supersede the president’s administrative plan. This would seem to be an obvious choice that would directly address the problem in a constructive way and allow Republicans to regain the initiative on the immigration issue.

So the Republicans have a choice: proceed down an unproductive path of shutdown and obstruction, or chose to govern and channel their energy toward actually doing something about the problem. With majorities in both houses of Congress next year, the ball is in their court.

Photo: iStockPhoto.com

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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