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Critics Say Obama's Immigration Plan Creates Path To Citizenship


We are following events in Ferguson, Missouri. Rioting broke out there last night after the decision not to press charges in the police killing of Michael Brown last August. We'll hear more on that elsewhere in the program. But now let's turn the president's decision on immigration last week.


President Obama made clear that his executive action offers undocumented immigrants a deferral from the threat of deportation - not a path to citizenship. Still, critics of the move say those who qualify for the deferral are, quote, "jumping the line" ahead of people waiting patiently for their chance at citizenship.

GREENE: We wanted to know, is there a line? And how does that work? Political science professor Dan Tichenor is the author of "Dividing Lines: The Politics Of Immigration Control In America." He says there isn't one line. There are several.

DAN TICHENOR: There are definitely cues that are for unmarried adult children, for spouses and minor children, illegal permanent residents. So one category's for families. And we have employment-based immigration, a third category for refugees and asylees, and finally a fourth category for something called a diversity lottery.

GREENE: And the diversity lottery is just sort of a general queue for people who want to come to the United States and be citizens?

TICHENOR: Right. If you're from a country that over the last five years has had 50,000 or less immigrants, then you're able to apply for a lottery. And we basically reserve around 50,000 slots for that.

GREENE: So all these categories that you are talking about - how does the queue or line actually work?

TICHENOR: Basically we have - is a quota in each of these areas. So for instance, for persons in the employment base - for persons of extraordinary ability, say in arts and sciences or business or sports - you know, we have 40,000 slots available. And so if you have, you know, 60,000 who apply, those 20,000 are waiting. But then we have other categories like, if you're a millionaire who can, you know, create over 100 jobs, we have slots for those. But they're never filled entirely.

GREENE: Is there actually an order? I mean, if there are 40,000 slots, and I'm number 42,308, do I just sort of move up as slots become available, and it sort of is a line in a sense?

TICHENOR: Basically, yes. In that sense, it is sort of like getting your number at a deli counter. So for that diversity lottery, basically each year we have 55,000 visas. And they're allocated randomly to nationals from those countries that I said are more underrepresented. Unlike a real lottery, you can't buy 12 tickets. You get one. And then you hope that you get your number called.

GREENE: Let me ask you - in everything we've been talking about - the lines that sort of exist in some cases - the lottery if you are from a country that, you know, is underrepresented as you say. People who qualify under President Obama's action to have their deportation deferred, are they at some sort of advantage?

TICHENOR: Not really. I mean, what you have essentially is a legal holding pattern. So they are not in a queue for legal admission by having this deferred action.

GREENE: I think the way I imagine some of the criticism here - the picture that some might paint - is that you have someone who is not deported because they were able to qualify under the president's plan. They're able to stay in the United States. And being here in the country would give them some sort of advantage over someone who is in Mexico, El Salvador and is sort of waiting to be able get a visa and start that path to citizenship.

TICHENOR: Historically, that has been very true. And in fact the way our policies have usually worked out in practice is the longer you have been in the United States, even in undocumented status, the stronger your claim to being able to stay. And so if one's looking at historical precedent, I think that's a fair assumption. But you just don't know how immigration reform's going to play out. It really depends on what's adopted in the future - if it's adopted in the future - we've been waiting a long time - whether one in fact has that sort of claim to legal immigration later.

GREENE: OK. So you're saying that in the past, people who were actually here on U.S. soil for a longer period of time might be at an advantage. But at the moment, we actually don't know if the people who fall under the president's plan will be at an advantage or not.

TICHENOR: Correct. In terms of permanent legal status - getting a green card and being a legal permanent resident - it's all contingent on what Congress might do in the future.

GREENE: Dan Tichenor is the knight professor of political science at the University of Oregon. Professor, thanks so much for coming on the program.

TICHENOR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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