What about America’s legal migrants
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Out of options. That is how some describe President Obama’s political position after his efforts to reform the nation’s immigration system hit a roadblock last Monday. In a 2-1 ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to uphold a lower court’s decision that blocks the parts of the president’s deferred action program. The program currently grants temporary deportation reprieve to an estimated 4.3 million undocumented migrants and came into effect by executive action in 2014. The Obama administration argues that such action is within the executive branch’s power when it comes to enforcing immigration law. Opponents contend that the President’s actions are unconstitutional. 

Under the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, undocumented immigrant parents can request ‘deferred action’ from deportation if they meet certain conditions, such as being the parent of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident born on or before Nov. 20, 2014. A similar program already exists for those who entered the country as minors. With the 5th Circuit’s ruling bringing much of this to a halt, the justice department is now planning to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, one question is likely to dominate the airwaves. Do the president’s actions amount to a change in the immigration classification of ‘illegal aliens,’ a change the 5th Circuit contends the president is not empowered to make.

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Herein lies the problem. Political discourse today is so focused on whether or not the president’s actions are legal that few question if these actions make sense. DAPA is a prime example. While the program does not provide lawful status to beneficiaries, it does provide work authorization. Undocumented immigrant parents registered in the program receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) that gives them the freedom to take jobs and change jobs at will.

The process for legal immigrants seeking the same freedom is markedly different. In order to get a work permit, a potential employer must demonstrate there are no Americans available to do the job. After this has been verified by the Labor Department, the immigrant can then apply for a visa, subject to strict limits, at his/her local US Embassy. Those using this program tend to be highly educated, helping create jobs five times over through entrepreneurship and innovation. However, their immigration status is irrevocably tied to the employer. If the immigrant wishes to change jobs, the process must be repeated with the new employer. Visa limits based on country of origin complicate efforts to obtain an EAD, the desired outcome for many legal immigrants. If the worker is from China or India, the wait for an EAD can last years. The ensuing message is both clear and concerning. If you seek employment freedom in the United States as a legal immigrant, be prepared to wait. If you are in the country illegally, the executive branch will simply hand that freedom to you as long as congressional inaction on immigration reform persists.

Conservatives argue that programs like DAPA reward undocumented migrants. Liberals argue it brings them out of the shadows. Yet both groups fail to grasp a simple reality. Overlooking the problems faced by America’s legal immigrant community risks disenfranchising the very people the country needs to maintain its future economic might.

Nunes studies population aging, labor markets and technology policy in developed countries. His work has appeared in the American Scientist, the Christian Science Monitor and Aviation Week and Space Technology.