Four Huge Immigration Problems Obama Likely Won’t Fix Tonight

President Barack Obama goes before the nation on Thursday night to lay out the executive orders he’s issuing to bypass Congress and massively overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Through a combination of reforms, Obama’s plan is expected to keep up to 5 million undocumented immigrants with long-standing ties to the United States from being deported.  ...

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

President Barack Obama goes before the nation on Thursday night to lay out the executive orders he’s issuing to bypass Congress and massively overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Through a combination of reforms, Obama’s plan is expected to keep up to 5 million undocumented immigrants with long-standing ties to the United States from being deported. 

Republican lawmakers are apoplectic about the initiatives, which they say should be made through legislation rather than by White House fiat. "If he acts by executive diktat, President Obama will not be acting as a president, he will be acting as a monarch," Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, wrote in Politico. Administration officials say the president had no choice but to act because such legislation has been stalled in Congress for years.

Under Obama’s reforms, some 4 million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years will be granted work permits and exempted from deportation. The president is also expected to raise the age limit on a program that allows children who came to the United States illegally as children to stay in the country.

But these are stopgap measures that are likely to come under scrutiny when Republicans take control of Congress next year. Some Republicans are already considering legislation to defund Obama’s proposed immigration reforms.

In bypassing Capitol Hill to grant what will undoubtedly be described by his Republican critics as mass amnesty, Obama is making sure that immigration, always a hot-button issue politically, will play an even more outsized role in the 2016 presidential election.

Rhetoric aside, though, Obama’s reforms won’t fix everything that’s wrong with America’s broken immigration system. From the future of the parents of children who entered the country illegally to what to do about the nation’s overcrowded detention centers, this is what Obama won’t be talking about Thursday night.

DREAMers’ Parents

Among those who will be able to apply for temporary protection from deportation under Obama’s executive orders are the "DREAMers," undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Named after the DREAM Act, a long-stalled bill designed to shield those individuals from being returned to their home countries, many DREAMers are already protected by an Obama executive order from 2012. That order, however, is limited to people who entered the country under the age of 16 and applied for protection by age 30. Obama’s Thursday announcement is expected to raise or erase these age limits.

The undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents will also be able to apply for deportation reprieves under Obama’s plan. But the order will reportedly do nothing to protect DREAMers’ parents, who face the same daily fears as other undocumented immigrants: that they will be discovered, deported, and forced to leave behind their closest family members.

Obamacare and Other Government Benefits

The government has long provided "emergency Medicaid" to hospitalized undocumented immigrants who lack the means to pay for their most urgent health care costs, allowing them to receive care for urgent procedures. This, along with some states making undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses, has been among the few legal concessions to the needs of undocumented immigrants.

But at this point, the Obama administration isn’t offering much more in the way of health coverage. The president’s 2012 executive order protecting DREAMers from deportation doesn’t allow them to receive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And none of the other groups to be shielded from deportation under Obama’s new order will be able to enroll in Obamacare either.

It’s also unlikely that they’ll be able to receive various other government-provided benefits, including food stamps and (regular, non-emergency) Medicaid coverage. That, as the New York Times points out, "underscores how far the president’s expected actions will fall short of providing the kind of full membership in American society that activists have spent decades fighting for." But given Republicans’ fierce resistance to both Obamacare and expanded immigrants’ rights, it seems that the administration fears that combining them will be a step too far toward further alienating the party that will take control of the Senate in January and that has already announced plans to prevent the new executive orders from taking effect.

Unaccompanied Minors

When children traveling alone began arriving en masse at the U.S.-Mexico border this summer, critics of Obama’s immigration policy seized on the crisis as evidence that the president’s allegedly lax enforcement policies have brought youngsters to the border. But there was never really any hard evidence to support that conclusion. Rather, the sudden influx of unaccompanied minors was the result of a combination of factors that had mostly to do with intense gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. With violence spiking and cynical traffickers telling parents that their children would find a home in the United States, many Central American parents decided that now was the time to secure a safer future for their children, even if it involved a harrowing journey north.

For now, the flood of unaccompanied minors has at least been slowed, with the rate of children arriving in October 40 percent lower than the rate in the same period last year. But that doesn’t mean the crisis is over: In October, more than 2,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the southern U.S. border.

The United States has taken some steps to abate the crisis, including launching a campaign aimed at dispelling rumors in Central America about U.S. immigration laws. Washington has also announced in-country refugee programs in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, but the number of refugee slots allocated for the region for 2015 — a mere 4,000 — is unlikely to address the desires of all those parents who wish to send their children to the United States.

It is unclear whether Obama will announce additional steps on Thursday to mitigate the flow of unaccompanied minors, but the root cause of the phenomenon — immense drug-related violence in Central America — is not something that Obama or Congress could possibly solve. That would require reforming U.S. drug laws and gun regulations and supporting efforts to reform corrupt institutions in the Central American countries from which these children hail. Executive orders wouldn’t be enough, and neither would be legislation.

Overcrowded Detention Centers

This past summer, when that same surge of Central American children and families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into the Rio Grande Valley left detention centers dangerously overcrowded, Obama called the emergency need for space in those facilities an "urgent humanitarian situation."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials needed beds, and needed them faster than they could find them. Many women and children were held in crowded facilities without bond until their trials, and due to lack of space, thousands of others were released with court summons at bus stations across the United States’ southwest border. Those who were held in detention centers reported filthy living conditions, including lack of access to private bathrooms, outbreaks of chicken pox, and children sleeping on top of each other in human cages and on concrete floors. The government even had to resort to using three military bases as holding cells to address the overflow.

Calls for reforms to holding processes after reports of sexual assaults and overcrowding in family detention centers led ICE to mandate the shutting down of a controversial family detention center in New Mexico. But it didn’t stop ICE from launching the practice elsewhere, as it will open a 2,400-bed family detention center, the country’s largest, in Dilley, Texas, next month.

Among the proposals in Obama’s executive action on immigration, there has been no mention of reforms to detention centers.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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