The US president, Barack Obama, announced on November 20th a plan that will grant work papers to some 5m undocumented immigrants, slightly more than 40% of those in the country. It will allow them to participate in the formal economy and prevent them from being deported. However, it does not grant them permanent legal status or a path to citizenship, and it can be reversed by a future president. In the short term, the move ruins any hope that Congress will enact comprehensive immigration reform but, in the long term, it makes that reform inevitable. Most undocumented Latin American immigrants in the US, who make up the bulk of those who will be affected, along with their advocates, have cheered the executive decision, even if it does not represent a definitive solution to the dysfunctional immigration system.
There are around 11.4m people living illegally in the US. The number deported each year has reached its highest level ever under the presidency of Mr Obama, at just over 400,000. Most will stay in the country permanently, regardless of their legal status. Mr Obama's executive order is an overdue acknowledgment of the facts on the ground: that most undocumented immigrants are woven into the fabric of American life in a way that will be impossible to unwind. Millions have spouses or children who are citizens. Others arrived as children and have spent most of their lives in the US. Some have graduated from American universities but cannot legally get jobs using their diplomas.
Sweeping reform will change the lives of millions
The administration's new policy will legalise parents of US citizens who have lived in the country for at least five years. It will expand an existing programme granting legal status to those who arrived as children. It will scrap a law enforcement tool by which local police departments informed federal immigration authorities whenever they detained undocumented immigrants, even if they were only charged with minor traffic violations. It also expands programmes for students to work temporarily in the country after they graduate, allows spouses of legal permanent residents to work and gives more visas to entrepreneurs.
Rather than forcing immigrants to dodge the authorities at every turn, the executive action will make it possible for them to perform basic civic duties such as filing income tax returns, applying for a mortgage or getting a driving licence. Less than 40% of Americans, however, approve of Mr Obama using executive action to reform immigration, but most, by a two-to-one margin, agree that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the US. Roughly half say that they should eventually get full citizenship. Prominent Democrats and Republicans, including two possible Republican presidential contenders, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, have embraced that position.
The economy will benefit
Allowing undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the US will also be good for the economy. Underground workers will start paying income and payroll taxes. Knowing they are not about to be deported makes them more likely to open savings accounts and spend on big-ticket items. Business groups say relaxing visa requirements will encourage more talented students from around the world who study in the US to stay after graduation and, perhaps, launch successful new companies. By expanding the labour force and improving productivity, the executive action will raise GDP by 0.4% annually over the next ten years, according to White House estimates. Officials also expect an increase in worker wages and a reduction in the federal deficit by a cumulative US$25bn over the next ten years.
However, while the move gives hope to those who have been living in the shadows of the informal economy, it is not a panacea for undocumented immigrants. To start with, it applies to only around 40% of those living in the country illegally. Second, even for those who will benefit from the executive order, it does not set them on a path to citizenship. A future president could reverse the order, leaving them exposed once more. And it does nothing to expand the overall number of visas available to immigrant workers and their relatives. It's not uncommon today for people from Mexico, India or the Philippines to wait a decade or more for a visa. Fixing that backlog can only happen with an act of Congress.
Immigration reform has been an elusive goal in Congress for several years, with efforts repeatedly breaking down under opposition from conservative Republicans. In 2013, supporters of immigration reform thought they had achieved a breakthrough when the Senate (the upper chamber of Congress) passed a carefully constructed bill that would have granted citizenship to millions of people while also beefing up border security. But rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives (the lower chamber) balked, saying the bill was going too far too fast, even though their leaders said they were sympathetic to the principle.
Incoming Republican leaders have erupted in fury at the breadth of Mr Obama's actions, accusing the president of behaving like a despot and vowing to use whatever means at their disposal to block the changes. His use of executive action is not unprecedented, although the magnitude of it is. He has passed an average of 34 executive orders in each year of his presidency, fewer than George W. Bush (36) and Bill Clinton (46), according to news website 538.com. Moreover, previous Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush all used executive orders to loosen immigration policy. However, Mr Obama's action is far more sweeping in its scope and magnitude than that taken by his predecessors, and he has done it in defiance of Congress. It has set a dangerous presidential precedent.
Republicans are angry and they have promised to respond on several fronts. They started by suing the president on the morning of November 21st, arguing he had overstepped his constitutional authority (technically, the lawsuit is about the health care reform law but its filing was timed to coincide with the announcement). Republicans have also looked for ways to keep government funds from being used to carry out the presidential order. Some are even whispering about impeachment. It's clear that the goodwill that prevailed in 2013, when the Senate was writing the comprehensive immigration reform bill, has evaporated. It no longer appears possible for Congress to pass comprehensive reform in the final two years of Mr Obama's presidency.
The long run
But the dream of comprehensive reform is not dead. Pressure from well-organised Hispanic voters will only grow. And business groups ranging from farmers to Silicon Valley startups will keep pushing for more visas for farmhands, computer engineers and others. Someday, Congress will be forced to tackle immigration reform again.
On that day, lawmakers will have no choice but to assume that the 5m people granted legal status under Mr Obama are going to remain. The debate will focus over what to do about those who aren't covered by Mr Obama's announcement. For that reason, his edict will likely turn out to be one of the most significant acts of his presidency. By making his move, Mr Obama has managed to set the terms of the next immigration debate. When that debate comes, supporters of full amnesty will have a considerable head start. Sooner or later, millions more undocumented immigrants living in the US will become legal residents and, perhaps, full citizens. The only question is when.