A Primer on Obama’s Executive Actions on Immigration

The president’s use of power isn’t historic, but it does change how officials will handle cases of undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles and across the country

Seven years after he was voted into office, President Obama took on Thursday what his administration described as “an important step to fix our broken immigration system”—executive actions that address the status of many undocumented migrants, how U.S. borders are secured, and how authorities will prioritize whom to deport from the United States moving forward. Taking executive action won’t go down as one of Obama’s historic acts—in fact, every Democratic and Republican president since Eisenhower has used that official power to enact immigration reforms. But that doesn’t mean Obama didn’t make history. Here’s how he changed the country’s immigration policy yesterday, plus analysis from Loyola Law School professor and supervisor for the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic Kathleen Kim:

He reprioritized the deportation list.
Who should be deported first, according to Obama? People who “threaten national security and public safety.” Obama has ordered officials to focus their efforts on “anyone suspected of terrorism, violent criminals, gang members and people who recently crossed the border illegally.” To do this, the Department of Homeland Security will work with the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons to remove federal criminals in the U.S. illegally from our jails. Kim’s take: “What this does is actually identify a more extended pool of who is considered dangerous aliens. Previously, gang members weren’t explicitly designated. It makes sense because gang members are typically engaged in crime, but it also creates a problem for individuals who might be incorrectly considered gang members.”

He offered some undocumented immigrants a three-year reprieve from possible deportation—with a caveat.
It’s good-news, bad-news for undocumented immigrants who have been living in the United States for more than five years and are parents either of U.S. citizens (children born here) or those with Lawful Permanent Resident status: They now have an opportunity to register to stay in the U.S. without fear of being deported—but for a three-year period. Those who opt to register for temporary security will need to pass background checks and pay taxes, but can also request work authorization—which means it will be possible for them to seek employment lawfully. Anyone who was brought to the U.S. as a child before January 1, 2010 also qualifies for temporary relief from deportation. Kim’s take: “This aspect of Obama’s plan is the most important. For those who have been living here without status but have set up permanent ties to the community and have been contributing to our economy and our culture, this is a huge step forward. Even though it’s temporary, it’s recognition that a good portion of undocumented citizens should be permanent members of our community.”

He stayed tough on illegal immigration.
Okay, so the White House is working hard to stress this point. But how, exactly, has he reinforced the country’s stance on illegal immigration? By deciding to maintain the high level of security personnel currently protecting the Southwest border and retooling how the agencies involved work together. Herman Cain’s electric fence idea remains thankfully out of the question. Kim’s take: “We’ve seen increased militarization at the border since 9/11, so this isn’t surprising. It would be part of any comprehensive reform plan.”