Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Blog

Since announcing his executive order on immigration, President Obama has held two events to to clarify the extent and scope of his most recent executive order. The events, one in Las Vegas and the other in the President’s hometown of Chicago, were a chance for the President to engage directly with multi-ethnic communities on the prospective reforms. Although referring to his action as just “one small step on immigration,” his statements acknowledging the diversity of immigrant populations indicate that his executive action last week will have a huge impact on both documented and undocumented populations arriving from countries around the world.  

Speaking before a crowd of predominantly Hispanic constituents in Las Vegas, President Obama discussed both the progress and failures of immigration reform since his last visit. “It’s been 512 days in which the only thing standing in the way of [a] bipartisan bill and my desk so that I can sign that bill,” referencing the failure of party leadership in the House of Representatives to move forward on S. 744, the Senate immigration bill that passed in 2013 by a 68-32 margin. “The fact that a year and a half has gone by means that time has been wasted,” said the President, “And during that time, families have been separated…businesses have been harmed… [a]nd we can’t afford it anymore.”

In part, the executive order addresses two specific aspects of the immigration that would have tremendous impact on immigrant populations here in the U.S.: the first is how to handle the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Expressing that even the most conservative members of Congress have no interest in mass deportation, the President’s plan outlines criteria to prioritize certain classes of immigrants, that if met, would allow these individuals to obtain legal-permanent or legal-temporary status. Individuals who have been living in the U.S. for more than five years, who have children who are American citizens or residents, register, pass a background check, and are willing to pay their fair share of taxes will be permitted to apply for legal status.

The second addresses the shortage of work visas that prevent U.S. companies from hiring highly-skilled and frequently U.S. educated foreigners. The President’s proposal included expanding the Optional Training Program, which allows foreign students on F visas to work for 12 months after they graduate and students in the science, technology, engineering  fields to work 17 months after they graduate; easing restrictions on companies moving workers from a foreign office into one in the U.S.; increasing immigration "options" for foreign entrepreneurs who invest and create jobs in the U.S.; and enabling foreign workers with H-1B visas temporary permits that allow them to move more easily from job to job. The proposal allows spouses of foreign workers to obtain legal status as well.

The President stated that while the face of immigration has been the Latino community, “not everyone who comes here is Latino.” Acknowledging that the demographic makeup of immigrant populations in America is quite diverse, President Obama reiterated that immigration is, “not a Latino issue but an American issue.” Millions of foreigners living in the United States will benefit from these new federal regulations, including individuals from the Middle East-North Africa region. In 2002, the Census Bureau estimated that approximately 115,000 Middle Eastern men and women were were living here out of status. Statistics on the total number of undocumented immigrants from the MENA region are difficult to find, but the population size is likely small in light of immigration, surveillance, and homeland security regulations invoked after September 11th. 

The workers visa issue will have significant impact to the Middle Eastern community, especially students. In 2010, approximately 34,000 students from the Middle East and North Africa attended U.S. colleges and university. The Institute of International Education finds that these students pursued training programs or degrees in predominantly STEM related fields, including engineering (18%), physical and life sciences (9%), and mathematics and computer science (9%). These new immigration policies will not only create opportunities for Middle Easterners in education and for jobs, but the U.S. will benefit from foreign students’ and workers’ contributions to the innovation ecosystem and domestic economy.

In Chicago, President Obama made the argument that the potential economic benefits to be realized by immigration reform are significant. According to an administration study, loosening federal regulations on immigration and improving the overall system could add $90 billion to the domestic economy over the next decade.

One point the President emphasized is that the Execution Order is not a panacea for the problems of the U.S. immigration system; legislation from Congress will be necessary to address several long-term issues. Several of the initiatives envisioned by the Executive Order are temporal in nature, and will not ultimately result in citizenship for many of the individuals it will permit recognition. Inevitably, President Obama and Congress will have to reconvene on the issue of immigration to deal with this Order and the system as a whole. We applaud President Obama’s insistence on addressing the issues and flaws of the current immigration system; however, comprehensive immigration reform is necessary for the long term and AAI hopes that both the House and the Senate will consider the issue on its own merits, as opposed to in response to the President’s recent actions.

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