President Obama’s marquee deportation amnesty has been stalled by the courts, but the rest of his executive actions on immigration, announced exactly a year ago, are moving forward — including his move protecting more than 80 percent of illegal immigrants from any danger of deportation.
The amnesty, dubbed Deferred Action for Parental Accountability was supposed to grant full tentative legal status — including work permits, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses — to more than 4 million illegal immigrants. It has been halted by a federal appeals court, and its fate will soon rest with the Supreme Court.
But the rest of the dozen actions Mr. Obama announced on Nov. 20, 2014, are still advancing, including a far-reaching set of priorities that effectively orders agents not to bother deporting nearly all illegal immigrants.
“There are 7 or 8 or 9 million people who are now safe under the current policy. That is a victory to celebrate while we wait for the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who was among the chief cheerleaders pushing Mr. Obama to go around Congress and take unilateral steps last year.
The actions — often mislabeled by the press as executive orders — also included changes to the legal immigration system, such as making it easier for spouses of guest workers to also find jobs; allowing foreigners who study science and technology at U.S. universities to remain and work in the country longer; pushing legal immigrants to apply for citizenship; and waiving the penalty on illegal immigrant spouses or children of legal permanent residents so they no longer have to go to their home countries to await legal status.
On enforcement, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, called for a more coordinated approach to border security, and that paid off with a major drop in arrests of illegal immigrants in the Southwest. Apprehensions were at their lowest levels since the 1970s.
PHOTOS: See Obama's biggest White House fails
At Mr. Obama’s direction, Mr. Johnson announced changes that would let most rank-and-file illegal immigrants off the hook and instead focus deportation efforts on serious criminals, gang members and other security threats, and only the most recent of illegal border crossers.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement is doing what I told them to do — to reprioritize and focus on convicted criminals,” Mr. Johnson said this month as he took stock of the changes. “This is the general direction that the president and I want to go when it comes to how we enforce immigration law — focusing on threats to public safety and border security for the American public.”
The changes are already having a major effect. Deportations, which peaked at nearly 410,000 in fiscal year 2012, dropped to about 230,000 in fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30. But Mr. Johnson said more of those being deported are the serious criminals and safety threats he wants his agents to worry about.
Indeed, if agents adhere strictly to his priorities, some 9.6 million of the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the country have no real danger of being deported, according to an estimate this year by the Migration Policy Institute.
“The enforcement priorities announced last year, if strictly enforced, do protect the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants from being deported, because most immigrants have been here a long time and haven’t committed a serious crime,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the institute’s U.S. immigration policy program.
The number could go even higher, depending on how agents follow some of Mr. Johnson’s other instructions. The secretary had said even some illegal immigrants with serious criminal offenses on their records should be allowed to stay if they had mitigating factors, such as deep family or community ties.
PHOTOS: Best states for concealed carry — ranked worst to first
Immigrant rights activists said they are still waiting for those special circumstances to be applied more broadly.
Mr. Johnson also has been pushing, with some success, to try to get sanctuary cities to buy into limited cooperation with his deportation agents. He scrapped the Secure Communities program that trolled state and local prisons and jails for illegal immigrants and replaced it with the Priorities Enforcement Program, which targets only serious criminals.
“It is tremendously harder now to deport even criminals, much less garden-variety illegal aliens. They have truly dismembered the immigration enforcement system, from the Border Patrol to the immigration courts,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
But the jewel of the executive actions was the deportation amnesty, which was delayed first by a federal district court in Texas and last week by an appeals court.
All sides in the debate agree that was a huge blow to Mr. Obama.
“Without being able to give away a benefit, like a work permit, these changes are less permanent, and easier to undo in some ways, than would have been the case had the president been able to implement DAPA,” Ms. Vaughan said.
Mr. Obama said he took the series of steps in response to inaction from Congress, where his push for a broad bill granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship stalled in 2013. Frustrated by Republicans, Mr. Obama waited until after the 2014 elections, then announced his go-it-alone approach.
Many of the steps are works in progress.
Homeland Security has issued proposals to carry out the leniency program for illegal immigrant spouses and children of green-card holders and to allow foreign students in science and technology to stay longer. Both of those still need to be finalized, as does a proposal expanding hardship waivers.
Other moves were easier to accomplish: Homeland Security now accepts credit card payments for citizenship fees.