Activists React Cautiously to Obama Immigration Plans

Executive action, strongly opposed by the GOP, would help as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants

President Obama will reportedly launch an executive action plan in the coming days to help as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants, granting them work authorization and temporary relief from deportation.

While administration officials told The New York Times the plan was not set in stone, it falls short of the benchmark—8 million—that immigration advocates had hoped for, using the widely supported bipartisan Senate bill as a metric for "big and bold" reforms.

Republicans will fight the president "tooth and nail," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday, and all options are on the table for how to deliver on this promise. It's one that could pave the path for a battle over budget negotiations and the attorney general nomination. Obama could act as soon as next week; he returns from his trip to Asia on Sunday night.

A crucial component of Obama's executive action plan, as reported in The Times, centers around parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents. It would allow parents to apply for work authorization and allay the fear of deportation.

This would affect at least 3.3 million people who had been in the country for as many as five years, or more than 2.5 million if the plan is contingent on at least 10 years of residency, according to a Migration Policy Institute report.

About 1 million more undocumented immigrants could receive temporary stays of removal if the plan extends protections to more children who came to the country illegally when they were young, as well as to their parents, according to The Times.

"We don't know who's in and we don't know who's out," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, "but five million is certainly less than what we needed." She added that the organization, which supports comprehensive immigration reform, hadn't heard specifics on the plan but was hoping for deferred action for 8 million undocumented immigrants.

The deferred-action programs discussed in the leaked plans resemble scenarios the Migration Policy Institute has analyzed, tying eligibility requirements to length of residency and a relationship to an American family member. The 5 million number makes sense if this is the case, said Marc Rosenblum, the MPI U.S. Immigration Policy Program deputy director.

"If the president was aiming for eight million, you could design a program that could do that," Rosenblum said, "but you couldn't do that very easily based strictly on family relationships."

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Rep. Luis Gutierrez urged Obama to act swiftly and boldly. Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, hadn't heard information regarding the details of executive action or the timing of such an announcement, he told the room of reporters and nearly two dozen House Democrats.

But he did provide a personal benchmark for what the word "bold" means: "I [previously] said the minimum that I thought that could be acted upon was five million," referring to the number of deportations deferred under executive action.

Enforcement reforms are also reported to be in the mix.

Per a 2011 directive, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has three main priorities: immigrants posing a national-security or public-safety risk, recent illegal entrants (those who entered the country in the last three years), and those with prior immigration violations.

Marshall Fitz, the Center for American Progress's immigration policy director, told National Journal earlier this week that the agency needed to do a better job at adhering to these set priorities—and they should be narrowed.

The executive action plan reportedly being considered would more clearly define who is a low or high deportation priority. Immigrants with strong family ties and without a criminal background are on the low end of the scale. Convicted criminals, those who pose national-security threats, and recent border crossers are at the top.

Additionally, Obama plans to move more security resources to the border, revamp the Secure Communities program, and increase opportunities to immigrants with high-tech skills.

For Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer, executive action is not a numbers game. Rather, it's about the policies.

To the California Democrat, bold reform means allowing undocumented spouses to stay in the United States while their green card comes through, instead of waiting out the period abroad. It means taking a look at farm workers to defer action for this group on a case-by-case basis. And it means granting temporary deportation relief to the parents of those children who are recipients of a previous Obama executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she said in an interview after the Thursday press conference.

Even if executive action is announced next week, and even as Republicans threaten repercussions, it will likely take months for the program to be fully implemented.

"We know it will take time," Gutierrez said. "I don't know how much time, but I do know this: With executive action does not come executive money, so the same employees that today are doing all of this work in terms of visas and citizenship applications, they would have to do this additional work."

This story was updated Thursday at 6 p.m.