States will benefit from Obama action, says Emory expert

Nov. 21, 2014

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Price is a legislation, administrative and immigration law expert at Emory Law.

President Obama's executive action on immigration will likely benefit state government by helping the economy and easing a costly burden on child services programs, including state care of U.S. citizen children whose parents might otherwise be deported, says Polly Price of Emory Law.

Price, an expert in legislation, administrative agencies, and immigration law, says the president’s announcement is similar to the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" initiated in 2012, which gave temporary status to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.  It now extends to parents of U.S. citizens who have been in the country at least five years.

"In recent years the United States has deported annually more than 10,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, and often state and local governments become the custodians of these kids. It is far better to allow parents who have been here at least five years continue to support their children," says Price.

The President’s action will also benefit the economy by authorizing many undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits. Those granted temporary status can now work legally if an employer wants to hire them, says Price, allowing them to pursue higher paying jobs and putting pressure on employers who hire illegally and pay them less.

President Reagan’s legalization program in 1986, providing legal status for nearly 3 million people, had an immediate, positive impact on the economy, she adds.

"They might even be able to get health insurance from an employer, but as a general rule all persons with this status will not be able to purchase policies through the Affordable Care Act, nor be eligible for social services. None of that will change," she says.

Price was one of more than 100 legal scholars of U.S. immigration and citizenship law who were signatories of a 2012 letter to President Obama outlining options available to the Executive Branch in cases involving immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Executive action, called "prosecutorial discretion," has been used by presidents in some form or other since the 1970s to direct how deportation officials should enforce the law, says Price. 

"The Supreme court has made clear that decisions like this, to initiate or terminate enforcement proceedings in the immigration context fall squarely within the authority of the Executive Branch," says Price.

"The scale of this might seem breathtaking to those opposed this form of prosecutorial discretion, but we have examples of it in the past. It's a longstanding practice." 

Limited effect; Congress must act 

It is important to remember that this plan does not “legalize” anyone or provide amnesty, according to Price. It merely reassures some undocumented aliens that for the next two years, they do not have to fear deportation that would interrupt families’ lives.  Congress can act to override the plan by legislation.  And the next President can revoke the executive order.

The House’s failure to address the Senate bi-partisan immigration reform now looms large as a political liability for Republicans, but it is one “they can and should address,” says Price.

Will not slow deportations

The rate of deportations will not slow, according to Price.

"Two million people have already been deported under President Obama, a record number," she says. "This executive order will not change the rate of deportations, which for some time have been at 400,000 per year, the maximum number that can be processed with current funding." 

Instead, says Price, the priority will remain: (1) those who have committed crimes or are members of gangs, and (2) recent arrivals. "There are plenty of options to choose from here—more than we can process each year—so no one expects the rate of deportation to subside," she says.

Likely reaction in states

In anticipation of any expansion of temporary status for immigrants, debates are already underway in state legislatures, including Georgia, to deny driver's licenses for those who might fall in this category.

But the driver's license issue is about more than just the ability to drive legally, says Price.

"Because Georgia and many other states use this as a primary form of ID to indicate citizenship and legal immigration status," she says, "allowing deferred action recipients to have driver’s licenses potentially changes the kind of documentation the state will require from U.S. citizens for voting and eligibility for certain public benefits."

Those who benefit from the President’s action cannot vote or receive public benefits, but the concern in state legislatures may shift to how to differentiate this group from undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for the President’s program.

These concerns are valid, says Price, but “pale in comparison to the net benefits the state will receive from law-abiding non-citizens while this temporary deferral of deportation is in place.”