Executive Order on Immigration Issued as Congress Gears up for Reform Debate

By Rachel Glickhouse

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced a new rule for undocumented immigrants, while signs of potential immigration-reform debate are emerging on Capitol Hill.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration issued a new executive order on immigration earlier this month, while signs of potential immigration-reform debate emerged on Capitol Hill. Announced on January 2, the new policy aims to keep undocumented immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens united with their families. It comes less than six months after another executive order created a program that grants temporary visas to undocumented youth. "The new rule also serves as a reminder to Congress that in the face of continued impasse, the White House will use executive authority to make whatever tweaks it can to improve the U.S. immigration system," writes AS/COA Policy Director Jason Marczak. Meanwhile, signs show that members of Congress from both parties have begun gearing up for immigration reform legislation.

The Obama administration’s first major executive order on immigration came in August. Modeled after a bill called the DREAM Act—which failed to pass Congress on repeated occasions, most recently in 2010—the policy allows applicants to defer deportation by studying or joining the U.S military. So far, around 368,000 undocumented immigrants, dubbed "DREAMers," applied for the program, with 100,000 accepted. The program has spurred legislation in several states affecting beneficiaries of the program. Connecticut will begin issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants approved for deferred deportation as of January 7. On January 10, North Carolina announced that the state would stop issuing driver’s licenses to DREAMers. Iowa also ceased giving licenses to deferred deportation beneficiaries on December 27.

Another Obama administration move to change immigration policy through an executive order came this month. On January 2, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a rule that could benefit some 1 million undocumented immigrants with family ties to U.S. citizens. The policy, which goes into effect on March 4, allows certain undocumented immigrants to apply for a visa in the United States and return to their home country for only a brief time—only a week in some cases—to obtain immigration documents. In order to qualify, applicants must prove that being away from a U.S.-citizen spouse, child, or parent would create "extreme hardship." DHS has yet to clarify the term, but said the agency "looks at the totality of the applicant's circumstances and any supporting evidence." Under a 1996 immigration law, the United States bars undocumented immigrants from reentering the country for between three and 10 years, which can cause long separations between families. Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told The New York Times: "One of the critical benefits is that the individual will not be separated from the United States-citizen family member during the application process."

Meanwhile, Congress is gearing up for a renewed immigration-reform debate. Earlier this month, an Obama administration official told the press that legislative proposals could come in a matter of weeks. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also hinted that Obama will outline his immigration proposal during the upcoming State of the Union address. A bipartisan group of eight senators began meeting in December to start outlining immigration reform proposals. In the House of Representatives, both parties appointed new members to the House Judiciary Committee, responsible for writing immigration bills. Republicans tapped Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)—who opposes the Obama administration’s recent immigration policies—to chair the committee. In order to work on immigration reform, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) left the powerful Financial Services Committee to join the Judiciary Committee. "We can't wait and wait and wait for immigration reform, and I am finding an enthusiasm for action that I have not seen on Capitol Hill for years," Gutierrez said in a January 4 statement.

In other U.S. immigration news:

  • In a Viewpoints Americas piece, AS/COA’s Jason Marczak explains the new Obama Administration executive order and how it could impact undocumented immigrants as well as the immigration debate in Washington.
  • California’s DREAM Act went into effect on January 1, allowing undocumented immigrants to receive financial aid to attend state-run universities.
  • Montana began requiring proof of citizenship for those seeking state services and benefits beginning on January 1 (voters passed the measure in November). As such, undocumented immigrants in that state will be unable to apply for state colleges, licenses, and disability entitlements, among other benefits.
  • On January 8, Illinois’ state legislature passed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses. Governor Pat Quinn said he plans to sign the bill.