President Barack Obama's pending immigration overhaul will likely extend protections and benefits to the segment of the undocumented immigrant population that rarely inspires sympathy among Obama’s political opponents. The proposal is expected to allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. While the exact details of the plan have not yet been confirmed, one certainty is that the announcement will provoke a strong reaction among immigration observers.
Unlike Obama's previous immigration policy in 2012 that helped young immigrants brought to the United States as children, his new policy could address millions of immigrants with limited English-language skills, education or financial resources, a much tougher sell for some conservatives. Various reports suggest the immigration overhaul will extend legal benefits to parents of children born in the U.S., including blue-collar workers or other immigrant groups.
On average, new immigrants -- among both higher- and lower-skilled workers -- raise wages and expand employment opportunities for native-born American workers, according to a 2013 study by Brookings’ Hamilton Project. But perceptions about immigrants stealing jobs still feed concerns around legalization of these undocumented immigrants, said Harry Holzer, an economist and professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“In a period of time when the job market is weak, a lot of Americans are sensitive about any extra competition and many view these immigrants as competition,” he said. “The notion of creating amnesty for lawbreakers upsets a lot of social conservatives. They believe that you don’t reward lawbreakers and that, if you do, many more will come and do this.”
Providing government benefits to immigrants, particularly those perceived to be less skilled and more culturally linked to their home countries, has further electrified the discussion around the announcement. Retiring Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann raised the issue in public remarks on Wednesday, according to a report from the Washington Post. “The social cost will be profound on the U.S. taxpayer -- millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language,” said the tea party icon. “Even though the president says they won’t be able to vote, we all know that many, in all likelihood, will vote.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a conservative grassroots organization, said the measure could put massive pressure on the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Organizations like FAIR argue the focus around immigration reform should instead be on border security.
“If only 2 million illegal aliens decided to apply for amnesty and work permits, that would mean that the U.S. CIS would be flooded with 8,333 applications a day,” said Bob Dane, the group's spokesman. “There is not enough administrative staff to do proper background checks.” This likely administrative backlog, according to Dane, would effectively grant amnesty to “pretty much everyone.”
Despite some of these concerns, a recent survey conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that 57 percent of Americans favor efforts to help immigrants gain legal status. Support grew to 74 percent when these efforts included provisions such as background checks and possible fines. However, Obama’s decision to tackle the issue through executive action is less popular, according to the poll, which found that nearly half of respondents opposed the move.
Not surprisingly, the president’s tactics have become the focus of Republican opposition to the immigration plan. Michael Steel, the spokesperson for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, issued a statement on Wednesday condemning “Emperor Obama” for the plan, which he said would “cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue – and many others.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, echoed this view, criticizing the plan as lawless and warning that "President Obama will not be acting as a president; he will be acting as a monarch.”
Immigration proponents, however, argue that the nation should want to help immigrants of all backgrounds. “We need to continue to be making the case -- not a partisan case but a national interest case -- for why giving status to a large portion of the population is good for the economy, family unity and, ultimately, about recognizing the contribution these immigrants are making to this country every day," said Chris Rickerd, a lawyer for the ACLU.