President Obama’s most significant immigration reforms during his first term came through executive policy decisions, not legislation in Congress.
The Obama administration started 2012 with an administrative rule change that reduces the time that the spouses and children of undocumented immigrants are separated from their citizen relatives while applying for legal status. The change eliminates the requirement that illegal immigrants leave the United States for long periods before they can ask the government to waive its ban on legally re-entering the U.S.
Then in June, the president announced that his administration would offer the children of illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the country legally. It wasn’t the DREAM Act, but it was a huge step in that direction.
Obama came into office promising to secure the borders and crack down on illegal immigration. And he also promised to work with Congress to get a comprehensive reform bill that included a path to permanent residency for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The president believed that if he showed Republicans he was willing to tighten the borders and the workplace, they would be willing to work with him on comprehensive reform. Obama was successful in half of that plan, only the prong of enforcement. Deportations soared during the first three years of his administration and arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border fell as fewer people tried to cross illegally.
But the president couldn’t advance comprehensive reform in Congress at all.
By the second year of his term, Obama had all but given up. With the country fighting two wars and mired in recession, and having spent all his political capital getting a health care bill passed, Obama put comprehensive immigration reform on the shelf.
Relations with congressional Republicans got so bad that the president even gave up on getting deals on immigration ideas that have support in both parties: the DREAM Act, for example, and legislation that would bring more foreign entrepreneurs and skilled workers into the country.
Instead, Obama tried to change immigration policy by changing the way his administration interpreted and enforced rules.
A Change in Enforcement Policy
In the summer of 2011, he announced that the government would review 300,000 deportation cases and sort out “low-priority” offenders. Hispanic groups, in particular, welcomed the change.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government would concentrate its deportation efforts on removing undocumented immigrants with criminal records and worry less about immigrants whose only offense was violating immigration laws. Instead of deporting nannies and farmworkers, the administration was looking for felons to deport.
Researchers at Syracuse University found that deportations fell to historic lows during the last three months of 2011 because of the administration’s policy change.
The president started off 2012 with another important move. He announced a rule change that reduces the time that spouses and children of undocumented immigrants are separated from American relatives while applying for legal status.
The change allows family members of U.S. citizens to petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for hardship waivers before an undocumented relative has to return home to formally apply for a U.S. visa. Simply put, the change keeps families together while they work out their status problems with the government. Immigrant activists hailed the change as a significant procedural reform that was “sensible and compassionate.” They predicted tens of thousands of immigrants families would benefit.
Republicans criticized the change as election-year politics and “back-door amnesty” for people who had broken the law.
‘I’m Not the King’
The president’s most interesting comments about his immigration reform plans and performance came during a February 2012 interview with Univision Radio. An optimistic Obama said he wasn’t giving up on getting a reform package through Congress, and it would come during his second term.
My presidency is not over," Obama said when asked about the failure to get a bill. "I've got another five years coming up. We're going to get this done."
He also spoke about the limits of his office. He said he did not break the promises he made during the 2008 campaign. Obama said he hopes that after the November elections, the mood will change in Congress as he begins another term.
"But, ultimately, I'm one man," he said. "You know, we live in a democracy. We don't live in a monarchy. I'm not the king. I'm the president. And so, I can only implement those laws that are passed through Congress."