What President Obama’s immigration order means for Oklahoma

This post is by OK Policy intern Nikki Hager. She is a senior Political Science and Economics major at the University of Tulsa.

Immigrant Rights Day rally at the US Capitol. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
Immigrant Rights Day rally at the US Capitol. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

In November, President Obama issued an executive order to grant deportation relief to approximately half of the nation’s estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants. The Immigration Accountability Executive Action (IAEA) is contentious and its future is uncertain—Oklahoma and 24 other states are suing the President over the order—but it nonetheless will have a significant effect on Oklahoma’s undocumented residents. This post will explore who is affected by the order in Oklahoma and what the order means for them.

The IAEA directly affects two distinct groups of unauthorized immigrants. The first are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents who have lived in the United States continuously for five years and committed no serious crimes. This group totals about 29,000 people in Oklahoma and some 3.7 million nationwide.

The second group is comprised of those brought into the United States as children any time before January 1, 2010, provided they have a high school diploma or GED and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor. Previously, individuals under age 34 who had been brought to the country as children were granted deferred action by a 2012 executive memorandum known as DACA. The recent expansion brings the total number of DACA-eligible individuals up from 9,000 to 10,000 in Oklahoma and up from 1 million to 1.5 million nationwide.

What does deferred action do?

Deferred action does not provide amnesty or a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. Rather, it is an act of executive grace and it can be revoked at any time, either by President Obama or a future president.

Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States. President Obama has prioritized certain groups for deportation—primarily convicted criminals and recent arrivals—while choosing to “defer action” for others as described above.

What does the immigration order mean for undocumented workers?

The 29,000 Oklahoman that are newly granted deferred action through the IAEA will be eligible to apply for three-year work permits, which will expand their access to the job market. A 2012 study found that undocumented immigrants earn around 30 percent less than documented immigrants, primarily because undocumented workers have fewer jobs available and little ability to negotiate for better pay. With work permits, undocumented immigrants will have access to higher wages. Furthermore, temporary work permits will allow undocumented workers to both shield themselves from employer exploitation and move freely across the labor market. In Oklahoma that could lead to an 8.5 percent increase in earnings, or an additional $1,872 per year for those affected.

This is good news for the entire state of Oklahoma. Over the next five years, Oklahoma is estimated to collect $26 million more in tax revenues because of the increased earnings of immigrants. Furthermore, increased workplace protections for undocumented workers means that employers will not as easily be able to hire them for below legal wages, which will increase the price of labor and grow wages across the board.

We’ve already seen this happen with President Obama’s first grant of deferred action. Sixty percent of DACA recipients have obtained a new job, and 45 percent experienced higher earnings. Additionally, DACA recipients have more access to financial institutions – almost half of DACA recipients have opened their first bank account and a third have obtained their first credit card. And the effects of the IAEA will be felt at an even larger scale since it affects significantly more people.

How does the immigration order affect health care?

Undocumented immigrants—including those affected by President Obama’s deferred action programs—are not eligible for state or federal subsidies for health insurance, nor are they eligible to enroll in a health insurance plan on healthcare.gov. The only government-sponsored health care undocumented immigrants can qualify for is limited emergency Medicaid coverage, most of which reimburses hospitals for delivering babies.

Though it won’t help them get insurance, the executive order may encourage undocumented immigrants to use more health care services, when previously they had avoided going to the doctor out of fear of being deported.

The IAEA will also help US citizen children of undocumented immigrants get health insurance. Although these children are often eligible for Medicaid or State Child Health Insur­ance Pro­gram (SCHIP), 45 percent of them are uninsured, compared to just 8 percent of children born to non-immigrant parents. After parents have been granted relief from deportation, they are more likely to obtain health insurance for their children without the fear associated with providing personal information to health care providers.

What does the immigration order mean for education?

The President’s executive order has large implications for students whose parents are granted deferred action. First, children of undocumented immigrants will be better able to focus on school without the constant fear of family members being deported. The additional family income attained from work permits will further reduce stress levels. Parents will be able to be more involved in their children’s education without the persistent fear of deportation, better able to volunteer at school, join the PTA, and interact with their children’s teachers. These are all net positives for students and schools.

The IAEA is a step forward for thousands of Oklahoma families and workers, providing them better access to health care and education while boosting incomes and state revenue. However, Congressional action is required for any long-term immigration reform. Until Congress approves comprehensive immigration reforms, the full benefits of immigration for Oklahoma and the United States will go unrealized.

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