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Politics & Government

Immigrants Wait To See How Obama Will Act On Immigration


We don't know just when President Obama will act, nor do we know precisely what he will do.


But if President Obama acts on his own to change immigration policy, we do know millions of lives will be affected.

GREENE: The president says he'll act because Congress did not. Republicans say that would exceed his authority.

INSKEEP: Beyond the politics immigrants and their advocates are waiting to see what happens.

GREENE: And our coverage begins with them. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Thirty-four-year-old Jong-Min You was brought to the United States by his South Korean parents when he was only a year old. Raised in Tennessee and New York, You graduated from college in 2003. But he's unable to fulfill his dream of going to law school and becoming a judge because he is here in the U.S. illegally.

JON-MIN YOU: I call myself an undocumented American.

GONZALES: American in the sense that he works seven days a week managing his parents' grocery store in Brooklyn. You had hoped he could take advantage of a program President Obama created two years ago temporarily delaying deportation for undocumented immigrants brought here as children. Technically it was called Deferred Action or DACA, but it applied only to people under the age of 31. And You was too old to qualify.

YOU: Hopefully President Obama will expand DACA for those people who have aged out, like myself, and parents are included. Obviously, my parents hopefully would be included since they've been here 30 years - that they be protected as well.

GONZALES: Deferring deportation for non-criminals is at the top of many advocates' list. You and other immigrant advocates hope the president's executive order will expand protections to include those who work or go to school, pay taxes and who have some equity in America. Reshma Shamasunder is the executive director for the California Immigrant Policy Center.

RESHMA SHAMASUNDER: We believe that those categories should be as broad as possible and cover as many of the 11 million undocumented as possible.

GONZALES: The administration could announce as early as this week its plans and the requirements immigrants would need to meet. According to news reports, the president's program would allow parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to get work permits and not worry about deportation. This would address two other items on the advocates' wish list - keeping families intact and letting people work legally.

Immigration policy experts say as many as 5 million people could be protected, but that number depends on who is considered eligible. The president's executive order could potentially affect a wide range of immigrants, from those work in the fields to those in high tech. Emily Lam is vice president of Health Care and Federal Issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. She says the president can't create new visas, but she hopes he'll clarify federal rules, making it easier for entrepreneurs to get work authorizations, also known as green cards. Another group needing work permits are the spouses of H1-B visa holders, who are currently barred from working, says Lam.

EMILY LAM: Particularly difficult if they have an advanced degree or are highly educated. They come here to support their spouse and they end up having to volunteer or not doing anything at all and kind of feeling like their careers are stagnating. It's very, very frustrating for people.

GONZALES: Regardless of what steps President Obama takes, they will only be temporary. They could be changed by whoever succeeds him or by Congressional action. Either way, advocates say they expect the president to deliver on his pledge to change the immigration system. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.