Obama’s immigrant order could have far-reaching impacts

Supporters of immigration reform attend a rally in front of the White House in Washington, Nov. 21, 2014, thanking President Obama for his executive action on illegal immigration.
Supporters of immigration reform attend a rally in front of the White House in Washington, Nov. 21, 2014, thanking President Obama for his executive action on illegal immigration. AP

President Barack Obama’s executive action to defer deportations will have a resounding impact on some 5 million undocumented immigrants and their families, who will no longer have to fear a late-night knock on the door and being separated from loved ones.

But, if past is prologue, the executive order also will reverberate far beyond those households to local schools, job sites and town halls, where the newly legalized will likely get more involved in their communities, and to the southern border, where ranchers and border agents expect a rapid influx of migrants hoping to cross the border and slip into the United States’ deferral program.

Evidence is mixed on whether new legalization programs, or talk of them, lead to increases in illegal immigration. Some observers blamed the 2013 Senate proposal that would have granted undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship for enticing more illegal immigration last year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection made 479,377 apprehensions in fiscal 2014, marking a rise for a third straight year, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which collected the data that Border Patrol officials posted on their webiste and then immediately took down.

“Obviously our work load will go higher,” said a Texas Border Patrol agent who requested anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to reporters. “I see it being a nightmare. It’ll spread like wildfire.”

For Arizona cattle rancher John Ladd, there is no question what the impacts of Obama’s executive order will be.

“They’re already coming again. I just lost 10,000 gallons of water last night where they broke the water flow that fills my cattle tanks,” Ladd said Friday. “Any talk about reform or amnesty, it just brings a wave of new people.”

On any given day, about 30 people will come through his 14,000-acre cattle ranch in Bisbee, which straddles the border, he said. But he estimates that those numbers have doubled in the past week as news spread of the pending executive order. Fixing broken fences and corralling escaped cattle is a daily struggle – not to mention the Border Patrol agents on horseback and off-road vehicles who chase those migrants rushing across his land, he said.

The 1986 Immigration and Control Act signed by President Ronald Reagan granted protection to undocumented immigrants who could prove they had lived in the United States for at least four years. Three million immigrants signed up for the legalization, making their relatives also eligible for family reunification.

The main economic effect of the 1986 legalization was higher earnings for legalized immigrants. Latin American immigrants who legalized their status experienced wage increases of between 6 percent and 13 percent, according to the libertarian Cato Institute.

Legalization also decreases a lot of uncertainty, as immigrants become less fearful, more trusting of law enforcement and the government, and more involved in their children’s schools, analysts say.

“People who managed to legalize do better on every possible dimension that you can think of,” said Susan Brown, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. “They earn more. Their families are more likely to learn English. They go out more. You name it, across the board, the outcome is better.”

The 1986 legalization began as an effort to restrict immigration, but the enforcement measures established to make it harder for companies to hire undocumented immigrants were barely enforced. The illegal immigration population continued to surge. An estimated 11 million to 13 million undocumented immigrants now live in the United States.

One of the main concerns with past legalization proposals, including the 2013 Senate proposal, is that once again, measures put in to stem the tide of illegal immigration would not be enforced. The fear is that Obama’s order commits the same grave mistakes.

“That means it’s very possible that we’re going to have a rush of people to the border,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “We’re going to have a decent amount of fraud of people trying to get this immigration status. And we’re going to be in a similar situation in the near future as we were before this executive order.”

Nowrasteh credited Obama’s executive order with serving a humanitarian need, but he said it does not address a fundamental need for immigrant labor: Many low-skilled people cannot come here legally to work.

Without a program in place to address future labor needs, Nowrasteh sees the problem only continuing as companies will still seek to hire undocumented labor, leading to more illegal immigration.

Unions, which are closely aligned with the Obama administration, have aggressively fought expansion of guest-worker programs on the grounds that they’re rife with abuse and that workers don’t have the ability to switch jobs, making them overly dependent on their employers.

But despite all those problems, they’re the best option available for managing flows of workers from poor countries to wealthier ones, according to sociologist Alejandro Portes, an immigration scholar at Princeton University.

“(Guest-worker programs) have many problems, but they’re better than illegal flows and better than creating an underground population,” Portes said.

Among those workers now working illegally is Rodrigo Escalante, who moved his family from Chile to Miami over two decades ago. They used tourist visas that they then overstayed.

His son, Adrian Escalante, 26, thinks he will finally be able to go to sleep at night and not have to wonder whether his father will be stopped by police on his way to his third-shift job cleaning floors at a Miami supermarket.

For years, just driving to church meant putting their family at risk, Adrian Escalante said.

“In Miami, it’s a must to drive,” he said. “I always had that fear that a cop would pull us over. You just pray nothing weird happens.”

Now, with Obama’s order, father and son may soon both be free from deportation.

White House Correspondent Lesley Clark contributed.