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Asians — Not Just Latinos — Benefit From Obama's Immigration Action


President Obama used executive action this week to reshape the country's immigration system. The president's actions mean that millions of immigrants will no longer face deportation. Many will be able to work legally in the United States. Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor and associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California-Riverside. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let me ask you to detail the fine points as you see them. How much will circumstances still vary from state to state?

RAMAKRISHNAN: First of all, when we look at an action like this, it's important to recognize that this is a federal action. And acts by the president are just as valid when it comes to immigration policy as acts by Congress. At the same time, implementation is where you're likely to see variation across states. There are laws that states could pass in the future given how large this new category of residents are. So one can imagine states might innovate in terms of creating policies for this new type of immigrant who does not have legal presence, but is under a specific type of federal deferred action program. What we've from the past is that Democratic-controlled states are much more likely to do that. And it is likely that in many of the states that are now Republican-controlled, you will not see the types of policies that would try to integrate these populations.

SIMON: It's executive action, so who winds up paying for the changes?

RAMAKRISHNAN: In terms of the things - the kinds of actions that are directly related to the program, it'll be paid for by fees. And that's something that makes it difficult for Congress to defund. It's a self-financed program.

SIMON: I suppose arguably it could cost them a little, couldn't it?

RAMAKRISHNAN: It will cost them. We saw that in terms of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. It costs a few hundred dollars. And for many immigrants, they needed assistance and either states or nonprofit agencies provided that assistance. But it's important to note that this is not something that every state will do, or you have places in the country where you don't have dense networks of nonprofit agencies that serve immigrants. So you'll see variation across states between dense urban areas and rural areas in terms of how many immigrants sign up and what kinds of immigrants sign up.

SIMON: There's understandably been a lot of attention in this country to the response among Latino immigrants. But I wonder if I could draw you out to talk about how some of the Asian immigrant populations might react?

RAMAKRISHNAN: Well, there are two things to think about when we look at the Asian immigrant population. So first of all, if you look at who the unauthorized are, an estimated 1.5 million Asian-Americans - or Asian immigrants - are unauthorized in this country. And to put that in perspective, that's about 1 in every 8 Asian immigrants in the United States is unauthorized. That's a pretty significant number, and it shows that Asian immigrants could stand to benefit substantially from this program. That's also important because we tend to think of immigration or immigrants and Latinos as interchangeable. But in fact, most Latinos are not immigrants to the United States; most of them are native born. And Asians are the most heavily immigrant group. So when it comes to a major piece of immigration policy - like what the present just announced - Asian immigrants are potentially very affected by that. Now, that said, most of the attention is being given to enforcement priorities and much less attention is being given to other aspects of what the president announced, including things related to higher-skilled immigrants. But also other things that the president did not announce, such as trying to substantially reduce the backlog in family visas. That's something that Asian Americans and Asian American organizations care intensely about. And they have not seen much discussion of that either in public discourse or in the president's announcement yesterday.

SIMON: Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate dean of the School of Public Policy at University of California-Riverside and he has a forthcoming book - "The New Immigration Federalism." Thanks so much for being with us.

RAMAKRISHNAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.