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The Ins And Outs Of Obama's Immigration Shift


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On Friday, President Obama changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants, at least temporary, and shifted the dynamics of the presidential election, at least for now.

By presidential decree, a new enforcement policy will allow an estimated 800,000 immigrants to avoid deportation and work legally in the United States. Some critics say the measure oversteps the limits of executive authority. Others scoff at what they call a transparent move to win Latino votes come November.

On the left, complaints the policy shift doesn't go nearly far enough. On the right, concern that the initiative puts us on a slippery slope toward amnesty for all illegal immigrants. If you're affected by this new policy, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org.

Later in the program, columnist Doyle McManus on the real pain behind the bloodless statistics of the economic crisis in Southern Europe. But first the new immigration policy. We begin with Mara Liasson, NPR national political correspondent, who is with us here in Studio 3A, and nice as always to have you on the program.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And timing. First the president's announcement comes four and a half months before election day and just as he and Republican candidate Mitt Romney prepare to address Latinos.

LIASSON: That's right, and even though the economy remains the overwhelming main event of this election, there are a couple of important sideshows. Health care is one of them, gay marriage is another, but I would say the most important sideshow of all is immigration.

And the president has been under fire from the Latino community for, first of all, not passing comprehensive immigration reform, which he said he would do, and for increasing the number of deportations. He's now able to go to NALEO, which is this conference of elected Latino officials, with a pretty big positive statement that he did what he could by executive action to enforce what's known as the DREAM Act.

CONAN: And the argument on comprehensive reform was that even when there was a Democratic House and Senate and president, the Republicans were able to block this in the Senate.

LIASSON: That's right. Republicans have blocked comprehensive reform and the DREAM Act. And it's interesting - a lot of Republicans who were for the DREAM Act in the past changed their minds about it this year and said they were against it. Also, it became an issue in the Republican primaries this year, and Mitt Romney did something that a lot of people thought was not even necessary for him to do, but he made a very hard right turn on immigration.

He wanted to differentiate himself from Rick Perry, who had one brief moment he felt threatened by, and he said that he would veto the DREAM Act if it came before his desk. He said he would consider passing a DREAM Act that only offered a path to legalization or citizenship for people who enrolled in the military.

It's extremely hard for an illegal immigrant to enroll in the military. I think that would affect a very, very small number of people.

CONAN: And this, at least on the basis of his appearance yesterday on CBS, this seems to have caught him on the wrong foot.

LIASSON: Well, he can't quite figure out what he wants to say. He hasn't been sending a very clear message. On the one hand, he is not saying that he disagrees with the president or that he would - he's refused to say whether he would reverse or repeal this policy. On the other hand, he's also not coming out for it.

So I think he's trying to send a message that he actually does agree with the president, but he doesn't want to say it out loud because so many voters in the Republican base consider this a form of amnesty. But he also has to appeal to Latino voters who are, number one, the fastest growing part of the electorate and the key to success in states like Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada.

And Romney doesn't have to win a majority of Latino votes, but he has to do better than John McCain did last time if he's going to win the White House or win those states.

CONAN: And the politics of this also go to Congress, where some, as you mentioned, Republican congressmen say wait a minute, this is way overstepping executive authority. We're going to take the president to court here.

LIASSON: Generally, the people who are saying that are not members who depend on Latino votes to get elected. You don't see Republicans in Texas saying that.

CONAN: And so this is dividing, effectively, the Republican Party, at least on this issue.

LIASSON: Yes, this is an actual wedge issue that the Democrats can use. They don't have very many of them, but this is a pretty big one, and you can see from Romney's discomfort and muddled way that he's talking about this that the Obama campaign has hit on something.

Now, the Romney response is this is just political, and why didn't he do this before. The president has been on record as for the DREAM Act, and as far as politics, usually when something is merely political, it's something that a politician does that they don't believe in, they just do it to get votes. On this one, we know the president has been for this for a very long time.

And it's Romney who seems to be changing his position from the primaries, where he was very clear in that he opposed the DREAM Act.

CONAN: The DREAM Act will be on the ballot in at least one state come November, in the state of Maryland. The legislature there passed it on the state level. But there's any number of states where this is the law.

LIASSON: Yes, but this is a policy for the Department of Homeland Security, who is in charge of deporting people. So in immigration law, as we're learning, you know, the Feds have the upper hand.

CONAN: The law in Maryland, I believe, provides in-state tuition.

LIASSON: That's something a little bit different. That was Rick Perry's version of the DREAM Act, and that is what Mitt Romney so famously opposed during the primaries.

CONAN: And so as Mitt Romney tries to win Latino votes, again, those earlier comments that he made during the primary campaign, that's not going to be very helpful.

LIASSON: No, and I can only imagine there will be many, many ads, most of them in Spanish, that will be reminding Latino voters of what Romney said during the primaries. And since he hasn't definitely reversed that position, that is the definitive statement from him so far.

But for the president, he does have a real challenge. He won the Latino vote two to one last time. Polls show he's still winning it two to one over Romney. But he's not going to be able to win unless he can not only get that percentage of the Latino vote but also boost turnout.

Latinos are one of the least proportionally represented in the electorate for their numbers in the population. They're the least registered, and they turn out in much lower numbers than they actually are registered. So he's got two big challenges. This should help him.

From the anecdotal reports we've heard, right after he announced his policy, Latinos are excited, they're happy, but now the president has to turn that excitement and relief into actual registrations and turned-out voters.

CONAN: We want to hear from people affected by this waiver. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Candy, Candy calling us from Gainesville in Florida.

CANDY: Hello, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CANDY: So I'm a Latino organizer. I do activism, and a lot of what it is that I do is actually DREAM Act-oriented stuff. And it's just, it's - on the one hand it's very much a victory because it's nice to know that, you know, all the hard work that you put in to community organizing, you know, there's - you get something out of it. But it's a far cry from the DREAM Act, which is what it is that we want in the end.

And it's not, you know, it's not immunity by any means. And it's not even an executive order. It's just a memo, like the ones that he sent before, you know - you know, talking about, like, making DREAM Act-eligible students a low priority. But the fact of the matter is they're still being deported anyway.

I mean, there's - I often get emailed to me, like, change.org petitions, trying to petition Napolitano not to deport someone who's, you know, 17 years old, 18 years old and that type of - you know, valedictorians and all that stuff.

CONAN: Janet Napolitano, the...

CANDY: Napolitano. Yes, yes.

CONAN: And so the president has, in addition to working for reforms, as you say, deported, I think, 400,000 Latinos just last year.

CANDY: Absolutely, over a million throughout his presidency. And it's just - it's nice that something is being done. But like I said, it's a far cry from anything comprehensive. You know, say, God forbid, Romney gets elected. He could - I mean he said that wanted to veto the DREAM Act. And he could certainly just change it, you know, change that, change the policy. I mean...

CONAN: He said it was a stopgap measure, which of course, Mara Liasson - thanks very much for the call, Candy - the president said it was a stopgap measure too. And this plays also into his obstructionist Republican Congress routine.

LIASSON: Yeah, I mean that's all he can do. Unless he gets legislation passed through Congress, this is all he can do. He can do something that changes the policy for the rest of his administration. If you want the DREAM Act to be passed into law, or comprehensive reform into law, you've got to change these - organizers are going to have to change Republican votes.

I don't really see any other way to do it. But I do think that the caller has a point, which is this is a policy. Now you have to see if they actually carry it out and if the deportations of DREAM Act-eligible young people stop. And obviously the proof is in the pudding, and everybody is going to know whether that happens or not.

CONAN: Here's an email. Joshua(ph) from South Bend: While everybody's talking about those that will benefit from the waivers, what about those who missed out? My fiancee and I have a close friend who was pressured to leave the country after his student visa expired. He did the lawful thing and returned to Mexico, despite not having lived there in nearly 15 years.

Had he simply stayed illegally, as many others do, he would now have immunity. While I'm happy for those who will be given a chance to make a life for themselves, it hardly seems to fair to reward those who chose to remain in the country illegally. And that's an argument, people say we're playing by the rules, we're doing everything we're supposed to do, we've been on a list for 10, 15 years.

LIASSON: That's a very strong argument against anything other than comprehensive immigration reform. And that's why people say we have to solve this whole problem, so that you're not just rewarding some people and punishing others who seem to be in almost the exact same situations but for an accident of timing.

But I do think that whoever is president next - in January of 2013 - is going to have to deal with immigration. First of all, it's been a problem that's been out there for too long. George W. Bush tried to solve it. His own party didn't let him. Barack Obama tried to solve it. He couldn't find a partner on the Republican side.

But I think the Latino vote is just too big and growing too fast for this to be ignored.

CONAN: Yet that's what we thought three and a half years ago.

LIASSON: That's true, but it only gets bigger. And I do think that if Mitt Romney loses this election because he couldn't win certain states - you know, I don't even know if I'd put Florida in that column, but certainly Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada - I think the Republican Party is going to think twice.

And don't forget, there is a big debate inside the Republican Party now. There are people like Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. There are lot of people saying this is a long-term problem for the Republicans to fix. It's possible that because of the bad economy and because of Romney's big advantage with white voters that he can overcome whatever advantage the president has with Latinos. But the electorate is changing into a younger, browner, more Democratic-friendly electorate, and the Republicans have to recognize that.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, with us here in Studio 3A. We're talking with some people affected by the Obama administration's new immigration policy. If that includes you, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about President Obama's decision to give many young illegal immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation if they came to the United States before they were 16, if they've lived here at least five years, and if they have clean records.

While politics certainly plays a role, this policy shift also affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people in this country. If you are affected by this new policy, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Many people have strong opinions on this change, as you can imagine. Some callers will tell us it does not go far enough. In a few moments, we'll hear from Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, who argues it goes way too far and calls the president's move a lawless act.

In the meantime, let's get another caller on the line, and let's go to Ari(ph), Ari with us from Houston.

ARI: Hi.


ARI: Well, my problem right now is I came into this country in June, but I turned 16 in May. And even though now I'm 28, and I've graduated college, I'm about - I'm trying to get into a Master's program, I still can't get a job. I still can't get a driver's license. I still can't do anything, and right now I'm not even sure if this law qualifies for me to get anything.

CONAN: So you came to this country illegally before you were 16, or you turned 16...

ARI: I actually came legally. I came with a visitor's visa and...

CONAN: Uh-huh. And then overstayed your visa.

ARI: Yes. When I moved to Houston, I tried to change it to a student visa, but because obviously I wasn't the one taking care of myself, I had someone else taking care of me, so she was doing that paperwork, somewhere along the line my whole paperwork just got lost, and I found myself illegal.

CONAN: And it's obviously been some time between then and now and just stayed illegal.

ARI: Yes. My whole family is here. My stepmom, my brothers and sisters. And they were all citizens. They were born here. I'm just the only odd one out with nothing.

CONAN: Well, we have somebody on the line who may be able to help us. Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, she joins us from a studio in Boulder, Colorado. Nice to have you with us today.

LAURA LICHTER: Thank you, Neal, glad to be here.

CONAN: Any - obviously you can't go into details of Ari's case on the radio, but any broad strokes of advice you might be able to give her?

LICHTER: Well, I think broad strokes is that anybody who thinks that they might qualify under this new policy should make sure they get the right information. As the Immigration Lawyers Association, I think our primary concern with something that might have this kind of a scope is that there are lot of people out there that claim to know immigration law but aren't really lawyers - notarios or immigration consultants.

And we're already seeing a lot of people who are being victimized by these people, claiming that for X amount of hundreds of dollars, that somebody can get them paperwork, get them a green card. So like any program like this, you want to start off aware of what it is and what it isn't and really know what's a good source of information.

And I would say right now, as the community organizations are starting to get their materials in order, maybe the best place to go for information is just going to be the immigration service's website. And start there, and make sure you know what you're talking about first.

CONAN: Ari, good luck.

ARI: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. It's interesting, Laura Lichter - as I understand it, the Immigration Lawyers Association was having a meeting when this policy was announced?

LICHTER: We were. We were actually very disappointed because one of the government officials involved with this was supposed to be our keynote speaker the day before and canceled on us, very last minute, and we've told him that he can cancel on us any time if he's going to come out with something like this. So I think we were delighted to have made that last-minute change.

We were fortunate enough to be able to get an extra ballroom to have well over 1,000 people there to watch President Obama make the announcement himself, and I have to tell you that at least maybe half the lawyers I talked to about this were so, frankly, overwhelmed by this, it's such a change in attitude toward this problem, that people were literally teary-eyed. And I suspect the other half probably were lying and holding back their tears.

CONAN: As you say, people were, I guess, in a celebratory mood, but wasn't that the case a couple of years ago when they announced the change that DREAM Act-eligible people would be at the bottom of the list for deportation?

LICHTER: I think last year, when the - when ICE came out with this prosecutorial discretion memo, where it outlined different factors that the agency would take into account, we were, I would say, cautiously optimistic. In a very different way, that memo is something that we're used to seeing. Here is a list of factors, here are things that we'll take into consideration.

There was a lot of gray area in that policy. What we liked about it was that it finally put down in one place, really from the beginning of the process to the very end, where the agency had its inherent authority to determine how best to enforce the immigration laws, whether to actually investigate a case, whether to pursue prosecution of it, or at the end of the process, even if there was a valid deportation order, whether or not to actually remove that person from the country.

But this policy and the way it's been presented honestly feels quite a bit different. The document that was released on Friday is very clear, doesn't leave a whole lot of gray area. It's about a very discrete, small number of people or small segment of cases, and I am more than cautiously optimistic. I think this is going to do pretty much what it sets out to do.

CONAN: Are there going to be difficulties with this? I mean, there are always gray areas, and how does somebody who came across the border illegally prove they got here before they were 16?

LICHTER: Well, it's difficult. But for many of these kids, one of the things they're having to show in order to qualify is that they're either in school or that they graduated from school. And so school records are a good place to start. A lot of times the first thing you're doing at the beginning of the school year is going to a doctor. There may be other people that can provide affidavits.

But a lot of the documents that somebody who is here legally might have require having papers. And so most people who are undocumented don't have bank statements going back 10 years because without a Social Security number, they might not even have access to that.

So that's going to be a challenge for some people, and that's where - that's maybe not a failure of the policy, but as we move forward on this in the next 60 days, the agencies are going to develop procedures for how folks can actually go through the application process.

And there is going to be some stumbling blocks, and we'll work it out.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to John(ph), John calling us from Portland, Oregon.



JOHN: My thoughts on the subject are just that I'm a Caucasian, 23. I'd like to go to school and - but - and I'm in construction. And I guess I want to say I definitely feel - you know, I have empathy for people who are, you know, came here and have no memory of, you know, the country they came from. However, it seems like this is going to incentivize more people to come here illegally.

And, you know, you had a caller on the other day talking - yesterday, I believe - talking about how, you know, Latino - talking about how he had to work construction because he couldn't get a job in his field after school. And I mean I just couldn't feel - I couldn't help but feel a little bit slighted because I wish I could get that job so that I could go to school.

And you know, I went to Switzerland, and I was offered a job there, basically, but I couldn't stay. You know, I could stay there for 30 days or until my visa ran out, but then I would be there illegal, and I didn't want to get deported. So I came back home. You know, otherwise I would have been there making 60,000 francs at a grocery store.

So I guess it just kind of feels like, you know, nobody would, you know, second-guess that in Switzerland. You can't come and take all of our jobs. Everyone wants to work here.

CONAN: All right, well, they're having their own problems with internal immigration from the various parts of Europe as well. But in any case, we wish you good luck with the job, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Lem(ph), and Lem's with us from Oakland.

LEM: Hi, hello, I'm calling from Oakland. I am a 30-year-old pastor. I graduated recently, actually, from - a degree in theology from a local college here in the area. But I wanted to share a little bit of my story in the sense that there's a lot of professions out there that people don't generally consider or think of, such as pastoring.

I'm unable to work right now, not really employable, and I volunteer or donate most of the time here at our local church in Oakland. But just the impact that a person like me would have on the community and still has, if only the opportunities were given. For example, I would like to offer back to my community just working as a pastor.

A lot of my work involves visiting hospitals, volunteering, inspiring kids to stay in school and college, improving the community, things like that. And currently I'm not fully able to do that. And so the president's policy, you know, I think it's definitely a right step in creating a change, but it definitely needs to bring attention to a bigger issue that has yet to be resolved.

And so even though I do applaud the initiative, I think more needs to be done. Definitely more needs to be done. And the same situation is with my brother. He's also a pastor. He works in a different state, and we're both in the same boat.

CONAN: All right.

LEM: So I just wanted to share some of that.

CONAN: Thank you, Lem.

LEM: Thanks.

CONAN: And, Laura Lichter, might some people be concerned that by applying for such a waiver, they might put themselves on the radar of ICE and find themselves in a very different situation?

LICHTER: Well, that's a good point, Neal, and I think, as you've heard from the last couple of callers, there's some confusion about maybe what this actually does. And I think it's really important to understand that this is not an amnesty. It's not a legal status. It is not a permanent status. It's not a green card. It really isn't even a legal status, per se.

Somebody who's going to benefit from this policy can't vote. It's not a direct path to citizenship. They can't sponsor family members. It is just a way to halt, temporarily, the unjust deportation of young people who really consider themselves, honestly, to be Americans. America is their home. They were raised here. They're as American as either of our kids.

And for us that work in this area, this is kind of a - of all the really complicated issues in immigration law, this is really just a no-brainer. It's the right thing to do, and it's the right thing to do, honestly, regardless of what your politics are. This is primarily an enforcement strategy, and I think people miss that because they maybe don't focus often on the context here.

But when we talked about that prior memo, prior policy that came down last year in terms of prioritizing deportations, what we were really saying is, look, you got 400,000 seats on the bus. Wouldn't you rather have those seats go to people who are actual threats to our community or a danger to our families and not kids who are, for all intents and purposes, would-be Americans?

It's also the right thing to do for our economy. Whenever you look at the debate that states have had over in-state tuition, the reason those bills pass is because they make sense fiscally. People getting status means an increase in spending. It means more people renting houses, buying cars, et cetera.

CONAN: All right. Laura Lichter, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

LICHTER: Thank you.

CONAN: Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, with us from Boulder, Colorado. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And joining us now is Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He joins us by phone from his office in Washington. And nice to have you back on the program.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And I've read that you call this a lawless act. This is not even about immigration, you wrote. What is it about?

KRIKORIAN: It's about how we make laws, whether they're about immigration or anything else. The president has claimed that this is just a matter of prioritizing who's deported as using what they call prosecutorial discretion. In other words, you're a police officer. Two cars go by you, you know, more than the speed limit. You have to decide which one you go after, that kind of thing. That's just part of normal life.

But what the president is doing is using that as a pretext, really, for establishing what can really only be described as a kind of amnesty program. I mean, it's not as though the people involved - the government is saying, well, look, we're just going to look the other way. They're actually being issued two-year - or going to be issued - two-year residency permits and employment documents. They will have legal status for at least two years. It's renewable.

And we have a track record of other so-called temporary immigration statuses that pretty much always become permanent eventually. They're repeatedly renewed, and, you know, the people just never leave. It's - I mean, the saying is there's nothing as permanent as a temporary immigration status. And so that's the kind of thing Congress needs to determine. This is making law. It's not just an exercise of discretion.

And, frankly, I think even the people applauding this are going to regret this down the line because it establishes a precedent where some future president, say, a Republican, who wants the capital gains tax cut. Congress won't give it to him. He just enacts it because he thinks it's the right thing to do. That's not the way - it's no way to run a railroad, let alone a democracy.

CONAN: Well, presumably, the enforcement officials have only so many resources. As Laura Lichter suggested, perhaps they ought to focus them on people who've been convicted of crimes and do really cause a problem rather than people who've been there since they were kids.

KRIKORIAN: Well, of course. I mean, there's a couple of points here. First, the idea of prioritizing, of using your resources strategically, is just common sense. I mean, nobody has unlimited resources, whether it's a enforcement agency or, you know, you at your house. But all enforcement combines an idea of prioritizing, going after the worst cases, also - but also having a certain element of randomness.

This is why there are audits. The IRS doesn't ignore regular people and only pay attention to terrorists and drug dealers. It does both. The immigration service, under President Obama's instructions, is being told to completely ignore regular illegal immigrants and only go after criminals when, in fact, they need to, and can, do both. That's the problem.

CONAN: Some members of Congress have announced plans to file suit, saying this is extralegal. Will you be joining them?

KRIKORIAN: Well, we don't do that kind of thing, number one. We're a research organization. But I'm not sure that there's an actual legal remedy. I think this is more a political issue. I mean, when two branches of government butt up against each other, you know, the way checks and balances are supposed to work under the Constitution, it's not usually a courtroom matter, it's a political matter. This Congress can stop this tomorrow if they wanted to by saying that no DHS funds may be spent on implementing this policy, but they're not - probably not going to.

And what that means is they're sending a signal, not just to this president but to future presidents, that they can act with impunity to make their own law and ignore the will of Congress. This is why I'm saying it's a very disturbing precedent, completely apart from the immigration side of it.

CONAN: Mark Krikorian, thanks for your time.

KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, with us by phone from his office here in Washington. Up next, the economic crisis in Europe is about much more than numbers and policies. Columnist Doyle McManus visited Southern Europe for three weeks and talked with many of the people whose lives are most affected. He'll join us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.