Executive Action Plan for U.S. Immigration Reform

After much deliberation, press, and controversy, President Obama announced tonight that he will take executive action to improve the United States’ immigration system. His speech, and various briefing materials, can be found at the White House’s website.  Specifics on the action plan, including border security measures and applications processes, can be found here at the Department of Homeland Security’s website.

Note:  many of the affirmative relief measures will take some time to implement, as the government (and principally Department of Homeland Security) has to create forms, systems and processes for individual applications.  Where the issuance of a regulation is required–which is only true in some instances–there will be lag time to implementation.

The plan is politically controversial.  The President has legal authority to implement broad measures—the question is just how broad that authority goes? As he said in his speech, most of his predecessors have exercised executive action in the context of immigration. The Immigration and Nationality Act delegates broad discretionary powers to the President.  Further, prosecutorial discretion is fundamental to the responsible implementation and enforcement of immigration laws, which falls to the Executive Branch. The limits of these powers may be tested. The Department of Justice issued a legal memorandum, dated November 19th, 2014 (yesterday), which concludes the President can (1) prioritize removals as an act of prosecutorial discretion, and (2) can propose deferred action for relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents; but (3) cannot authorize deferred action for parents of DACA recipients, as the President proposes.

The President’s Executive Action is presented as having three critical elements: (1) cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, (2) deporting felons, not families, and (3) accountability – criminal background checks and taxes. Most notably, the action may allow as many as 4 million (or more) persons to apply to come out of the shadows and obtain work authorization, and become part of the tax system.

Our business clients are likely to see significant benefits from the Action Plan, as presented. The Action Plan has language favoring enhanced opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs. The Plan intends to strengthen and extend on-the-job training for STEM graduates from U.S. universities. Portable work authorization shall be made available for high skilled workers awaiting lawful permanent resident status, as well as for their spouses.

The Action Plan also includes measures to improve border security and promote public safety, by focusing on persons who are threats to society. The Action Plan also will seek to promote citizenship public awareness. It has language which provides relief to spouses and children of U.S. citizens seeking to enlist in the military. The Plan also expand the already existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to cover additional DREAMers.

Reforms are much needed. In some cases, these measures don’t go far enough, such as where discretionary relief is limited to those with U.S. citizen relatives, or with the range of possible reforms that could help business. There is much good news here for many. I suspect in time many of these measures will be widely accepted, as has seemed to be the case with DACA after two years.

The need for Congress to act on immigration remains. I was on Capitol Hill last week meeting with Congressional offices to discuss immigration matters. My impression, based on the news and these meetings, is that a comprehensive immigration bill is unlikely in the near future. The Action Plan therefore may serve the interests of the people, until Congress can pass a bill, whenever that shall be.