Leap of Faith

11.21.14 10:55 AM ET

Will 5 Million Undocumented Immigrants Take Obama's Tough Love Immigration Deal?

He promises the undocumented a chance to ‘get right with the law’ but says there will be ‘no free pass’ to citizenship either.

President Obama’s speech explaining why he is taking executive action on a massive scale to fix a broken immigration system was hinged on an inescapable contradiction. 

On the one hand, Obama tried to calm fears that he was handing out “amnesty” by playing down what was happening; this isn’t permanent legal status, he insisted, merely a temporary deferment of deportation for folks who meet the qualifications. 

“This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently,” Obama said. “It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive. Only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”

Yet, on the other hand, and for most of the speech, Obama painted a rosy picture of a grand bargain in which undocumented immigrants who had contributed much to America could “get right with the law” and change their lives for the better. 

“If you’ve been in America more than five years,” he said. “If you have children who are American citizens or legal residents. If you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation.”

But how exactly does an undocumented immigrant get right with the law without changing his legal status? Either what the president is proposing has the power to change people’s lives, or it doesn’t. Which is it?

Not that Obama’s Republican critics haven’t spent the last several days getting tangled up in their own contradictions.

After the midterm elections, conservative pundits and radio hosts urged Congress not to work with Obama. A few weeks later, when Obama threatened to circumvent Congress and go it alone on immigration reform, there were those on the right who criticized the president for not working with Congress.

A Republican Party that, during the George W. Bush administration worked tirelessly to expand the power of the Executive Branch was suddenly worried about executive overreach by a Democratic president.

Those in the GOP who supported immigration reform dismissed the president’s plan as not going far enough, while those Republicans who oppose any plan that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States—even temporarily — blasted it as going much too far.

Obama’s speech did what it needed to do: Clearly lay out the problem, and then go on to explain why the approach he had in mind was the best one. There were several memorable and impactful lines, as Obama laid out what he called a “common sense middle-ground approach” that upheld both of America’s traditions—as a country of immigrants, and a country of laws.  

Such as this: “Millions of us, myself included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking work to become citizens. So we don’t like the notion anyone might get a free pass to American citizenship.”

And this: “We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration. We need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears.”

And this: “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?”

And this: “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

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It was clear in listening to Obama’s words that he has evolved on this issue over the last six years in office, as he has learned more about it and heard from more people whose lives are directly effected by the broken system.

Looking ahead, it’s unclear how many of the estimated 4 to 5 million illegal immigrants who might be eligible for relief under the guidelines spelled out by Obama will actually apply for the dispensation. Another unknown is how many from that pool will eventually qualify. In the case of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that served as a model for what the president intends to do with, for instance, the undocumented parents of U.S.-born children, only about a third of those who were eligible were willing to risk going through the process to be awarded deferred action. This includes walking into a Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, turning yourself in, getting fingerprinted, handling over your home address and all your personal information, all in return for the promise not to deport you—at least for now. Expect many of those who are eligible for relief under the new program to say, “Thanks but no thanks” and go on their way.

Meanwhile, the Obama deportation machine will continue to run 24/7 and enforcement might be even more aggressive than it has been up to now in order to overcompensate for what many Americans perceive as a giveaway for illegal immigrants.

Finally, there’s the GOP, which remains—as a result of Obama’s maneuver—divided and unsure of its next move. Some are hollering for impeachment, or a government shutdown, or a bill to deny the administration the funding to carry out the new program. Those are all bad ideas. The Republicans only have one real move that could help them out of this fix. They need to pass their own version of immigration reform with provisions that members of their caucuses can live with—such as improved border security, a modern guest worker-program to help alleviate labor shortages in industries such as agriculture, and work permits for the undocumented that bring people into the economy but don’t put these individuals on the path to citizenship.

Many Republicans consider that a deal breaker because citizenship leads to voting, and they have no confidence that these newly minted U.S. citizens would vote for the GOP. And given how they behave at moments like this, you can see why that is.

With his broken promises, stall tactics, political games, and record number of deportations, Obama has not been particularly good on immigration. But the president deserves credit for this speech, and for the bold plan he has laid out to help millions of people come out in the open—if only temporarily. 

In theory, it sounds good. Now let’s how it works in the real world.