Over the span of several U.S. election cycles, there have been calls for comprehensive immigration reform to fix a system that people on both sides of the political spectrum agree is broken. But some observers say President Barack Obama’s recent executive action aimed at temporarily shielding some undocumented foreigners from being deported may have doomed his longer-term goal of forging a comprehensive agreement with Congress.
Obama’s recent executive action allows some four million undocumented residents in the United States to seek temporary legal status. But without Congressional approval, he cannot achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
Republicans, who won majorities in both houses of Congress in November’s midterm elections, replied through Speaker of the House, John Boehner.
“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he is acting on his own,” he said. “That is just not how our democracy works.”
Tony Payan, Director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, says Obama’s action will help a lot of people come out of the shadows and “essentially, become a little more integrated, in a legal, formal sense, into the American economy and the American society.
“But it was also very counterproductive because I feel that it polarized many of the Republicans who might have been willing to do something on immigration,” he added.
While some undocumented immigrants support the move, others have mixed feelings about what they see as a temporary fix.
Payan says there are concerns about applying for legal status under this temporary measure.
“Once they surrender their personal information to the government, once the government knows who they are and where they are and if the next president is not willing to extend that temporary protected status, then they are going to be found very quickly and to be denied,” he said.
Republicans say they want to secure the border with Mexico before approving other measures. The surge of Central American immigrants at the Texas border earlier this year underscored this concern.
Republicans also oppose Democratic proposals for a so-called “pathway to citizenship,” which they see as a ploy to increase the Democratic voter base.
But Houston immigration attorney Charles Foster says most immigrants seek legal resident status, not full naturalization.
“If you look at the last big legalization bill signed by President Reagan, in the last 40 years, barely 30 percent have even gotten around to applying for citizenship,” he said.
Foster says the immigration issue has divided the Republican Party.
“While the business community is very supportive of immigration reform, there is a very vocal wing of the Republican Party that is adamantly against everything,” said Foster.
Analysts say it may still be possible for the Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama to achieve agreement on at least some parts of immigration reform next year, but that full reform is more likely to be delayed until after the 2016 presidential election.