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12:14 pm ET
Nov 20, 2014

Immigration

Q&A: What Is Obama Going to Announce on Immigration?

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  • Barack Obama

  • Deportation

  • Immigration

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  • Laura Meckler
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    • laura.meckler@wsj.com
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    A man walks next to the U.S. – Mexico border wall on November 19, 2014 in Calexico, Calif.
    Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

    Here are answers to top questions on President Obama’s planned actions on immigration.

    What is President Obama going to announce?

    Full details won’t be available until Thursday evening, but people briefed on his plan say the centerpiece will be new protections from deportation for as many as five million people in the U.S. illegally. That includes about four million who would have the chance to apply for “deferred action,” which gives them a temporary safe harbor from deportation, and up to another million people who would win other protections.

    The president is expected to offer protections to people who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and who also have children who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. He is also expected to expand eligibility for a 2012 program that gives safe harbor from deportation to young people brought into the U.S. illegally as children by increasing the age limit for participation. However, the parents of these people will not be automatically eligible for deferred action.

    The plan is expected to step up border enforcement by shifting resources from the interior of the country to the border. It will also reorder immigration-enforcement priorities and revamp or replace the Secure Communities program, which uses local law enforcement to identify undocumented immigrants.

    Why is President Obama doing this by executive action and not trying harder to pass legislation?

    In a nutshell, he doesn’t think Congress will ever pass a bill acceptable to him, and he has repeatedly promised immigration advocates that he will act alone absent legislation. Bipartisan immigration legislation cleared the Senate last year but died in the House, despite support from House Speaker John Boehner and some other Republicans for many of the underlying elements.

    His authority is limited, though. He does not have the power to appropriate more money for border security, or to create a new guest worker program. The reprieve from deportation that he is offering to illegal immigrants is temporary, and does not lead to a green card or a path to citizenship. It will be available to less than half of the undocumented population. The entire program could be undone by a future president, though it may prove politically dicey to strip people of protected status once they have it

    Why are Republicans so opposed to the president taking executive action?

    Republicans say the president is exceeding his authority and that he cannot simply go around Congress just because lawmakers don’t do what he wants. They say he is setting a bad tone that will make cooperation on this and other issues harder in the coming months.

    How will the congressional Republican respond?

    Republicans are still weighing their options for how to best respond to the president’s action. Because the main agency to implement the executive action is self-funded by fees, Congress can’t de-fund it through the spending bill it must pass next month to keep the government running (its current funding expires on Dec. 11.) Republicans said they might seek to restrict how many of the president’s nominees the Senate confirms next year or thwart his agenda in other parts of the budget.

    Another option is to file a lawsuit against the president, hoping a judge will intervene. But legal experts say it will be challenging to find someone is harmed by the action and therefore has standing to sue. A final idea is for the new GOP-controlled Congress to pass its own immigration legislation. Mr. Obama would be thrilled if such a bill were to his liking, but the more likely course would be something that emphasizes border security and/or enforcement only.

    What is the president’s legal rationale for moving ahead on his own?

    The program’s legal justification begins with the fact that enforcement budgets do not allow the administration to deport all illegal immigrants, therefore the administration is forced to pick and choose who must go and who will be allowed to stay. “The application of prosecutorial discretion to individuals or groups is grounded in the Constitution and has been part of the immigration system for many years,” said a letter from 136 law professors supporting the action.

    Many other presidents have similarly sheltered undocumented immigrants from deportation for a range of reasons, though not on this scale. The closest precedent came in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush gave work authorizations to up to 1.5 million spouses and children of illegal immigrants who qualified for legalization under a 1986 law. Congress had decided to limit the number of people who benefited from its program; Mr. Bush used his authority to expand the group.

    How will the plan impact businesses that rely on immigrant labor?

    Mr. Obama does not have authority to make most of the changes that companies want, such as creating a guest worker program, revamping the agricultural worker program and increasing the number of visas available for high-tech companies. Technology companies had hoped that Mr. Obama would make available more employment visas by recapturing those that were unused in previous years, but that is not expected to be in the package.

    Some Republicans have said the action means they will not work with Mr. Obama on immigration next year, though chances were dim that they would anyway. Other Republicans are talking about stand-alone immigration bills, and it’s possible that business interests could be addressed that way.

    What impact will the change have on the economy more generally?

    The impact is unpredictable. Economists say that people who have been working illegally and gain work permits may seek higher paying jobs, heightening wage competition in a number of sectors. A 1986 law, which offered legal status to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, had an almost immediate labor market impact, with many farm workers, for instance, moving to other jobs that pay better.

    In a new estimate from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, roughly 18% of the 8.2 million undocumented workers aged 16 and older work in hospitality-related fields, 16% work in construction, 12% work in manufacturing, and 9% in retail jobs. Randy Capps, MPI’s director of research for U.S. programs, said some sectors could see more job competition than others after the White House’s new program is implemented. Many undocumented immigrants have recently steered away from manufacturing jobs and employers like meat packers, fearing raids from immigration officials.

    What do Americans think about the Obama move?

    A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds a plurality of Americans disapprove of the president’s pending immigration action, though public support for legalization of undocumented immigrants remains high.

    The survey found 48% of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s acting without Congress on immigration, while 38% approve. Support for a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally remained robust, with 57% of respondents favoring such a plan and 40% opposing. Support grew to 74% when people were given likely details of such a plan, including requirements illegal immigrants pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check before qualifying for legal status.

    Kristina Peterson and Damian Paletta contributed to this article.

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