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Obama's immigration plan may only bring relief for some

The broad executive action that Obama is expected to announce marks a hard-fought and long-awaited victory for immigrants' rights advocates, but is it enough?
Immigration activits protest President Barack Obama's immigration policies in Washington, DC, Oct. 2, 2014.
Immigration activits protest President Barack Obama's immigration policies in Washington, DC, Oct. 2, 2014.

For as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants, President Barack Obama's executive action announcement Thursday could mean the difference between advancing one step closer toward the American dream, and living each day in constant fear of deportation.

The broad executive action that Obama is expected to announce marks a hard-fought and long-awaited victory for immigrants' rights advocates, many of whom have long pressed the president to act on his own. In 2012, the president lifted an entire generation out of the shadows with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. Now, he’s about to do it again.

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Still, a victory lap remains premature. Growing opposition from the far-right ranks of the Republican party could put elements of the executive action in jeopardy. And though millions of undocumented immigrants could qualify for relief under the president’s plan, not all are protected. More could be eligible and not even know it.

“We have done so much to get to this point. It’s thanks to a lot of our stories and a lot of our work that has gotten us here,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of the young immigrant advocacy group United We Dream. “But I also worry about the size and the details of the scope of action because there will be a lot of people in our community that will have the relief, but not all.”

On Thursday night, the president will lay out the details of his executive actions, which are expected to impact undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for a pre-determined amount of time, and who have American-born children. Also included are immigrants who are highly skilled in tech areas, and who can contribute to American businesses. The initiative could benefit 4 to 5 million of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the U.S. However, the action is unlikely to provide health care benefits for those protected by it and may not cover the parents of young immigrants, according to The New York Times.

After his initial announcement, Obama will be traveling to Las Vegas, where he will appear at the same high school where he launched his pitch for immigration reform nearly two years ago. 

In the time since the president first pressed for an overhaul of existing immigration laws, advocates and organizations have gone to great lengths to fix what is universally considered as a "broken" immigration system.

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Hopes were raised, but then quickly dashed, after legislation was passed through the Senate last year only to die off slowly as it languished in Congress without a House vote. Earlier this year, Obama said that more than twelve months of congressional inaction on immigration reform gave him cause to act on his own. But by the time his self-imposed deadline on taking action was up, Obama caved to political pressures and delayed a decision until months down the road.

In facing disappointment after disappointment, pro-immigration reform groups are pressing for Obama to be as bold possible, particularly in the face of opposition from Republicans who see the anticipated action as executive overreach. GOP lawmakers are already threatening everything from shutting down the government to suing or even impeaching the president.

"Executive action on immigration is not about political gamesmanship or who's winning in Washington," Eddie Carmona, campaign manager for PICO National Network's Campaign for Citizenship, said in a statement. "It's about real people with real lives who want nothing more than the opportunity to live and work freely in the country they call home."

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Advocacy groups have led grassroots campaigns to call for the president to expand DACA, which is the existing executive initiative that protects young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. For many activists, it’s personal: The people they’re fighting for are their parents, families and members of their community.

But with protections available to only those who have children who are already U.S. citizens, Obama’s new actions will likely leave out many undocumented immigrants who have children who are protected under DACA.

“We will continue to stand and advocate and fight for those in our community who will not be able to benefit,” Jimenez said. “It’s a huge step in the right direction, but we’re not done yet.”