Friday, December 5, 2014

Teachable Moments: Executive Action and Immigration Myths

Invariably, if you have a conversation about executive action on immigration in your classroom, misconceptions and strong opinions will arise.  How can an educator create a safe space for open, respectful dialogue that engenders learning rather than relying on he said, she said?  What follows are ways for you and your students to separate reality from fear and myth-making.  If a student brings up one of these points, you can push for a deeper understanding simply by asking “how do you know?”  Often times that question alone allows the student a chance to reflect on where they heard it, who said it, and how.  Still, you might get an answer like “it’s what my dad or aunt said.”  Again, probe deeper in a non-argumentative tone like “oh, so do you know where they got that information from?”  If the source is unreliable or biased, you might respond with “That’s interesting.  Have you thought about what that information is based upon?” or “Hmm, does that sound like fact or opinion to you?"  Then, help students get the right information and encourage further research and discussion.  These often-touted myths and facts are a place to start. 

1.      MYTH: Executive action is not within the president’s lawful authority.
Ask students how they define the role of the president.  What can he or she do and what are his or her limitations?  Explain to students that it is a president’s duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution.  In this administrative action to grant temporary immigration relief, President Obama is not enacting law.  He is not changing the rules for granting permanent residency or citizenship; that action would require a change in law which is something only Congress can do.  It is also good to point out that every president since 1956 has used executive action to grant temporary immigration relief as published in a report by the Immigration Policy Center.  Our corresponding lesson plan on this report will also help students understand the large precedence for executive action on immigration.
2.      MYTH: Executive action is amnesty.
Ask students to define the term “amnesty.”  Encourage them to look up the word in a dictionary if they don’t know it.  In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, amnesty is defined as the “act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.”  Essentially, it means forgiveness for a crime.  Amnesty has traditionally been used to build compromise after a war such as when President Lincoln granted amnesty to those who fought against the Union.  While undocumented immigrants have entered the US illegally, under Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Action, these individuals will have the opportunity to request temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for three years at a time if they come forward and register, submit biometric data, pass background checks, pay fees, and show that their child was born before the date of the announcement.”  After learning the definition of amnesty and reading the above referenced statement released from the White House, discuss with students whether or not this executive action pardons undocumented immigrants or if a penalty is being extracted from them.
3.      MYTH: Executive action is a lasting law that prevents congressional immigration reform.
Ask students what they think the difference would be between Congress enacting a law and a president issuing an executive action.  Students should be able to recognize that executive action is temporary, in this case, three years, while a law is permanent (although it can be overturned by the Supreme Court).  According to the Immigration Policy Center, “there is no action that the President can take that will trump the need and opportunity for lasting, permanent reforms to our broken immigration system.”  Executive action does not prevent congressional immigration reform, because in fact congressional action is still needed.  When Presidents Ronald Reagan and G. W. Bush implemented executive action for immigration relief protecting the spouses and children of unauthorized immigrants who qualified for legal status, beginning in 1986 with The Immigration and Reform Control Act (IRCA) under Reagan and in 1990 with the Family Fairness Act under Bush, Congress was spurred to take action and implement their work into lasting reform. 
4.      MYTH: Executive action is not needed because people who want to come can wait in line like everyone else.
Ask students if they know when their families arrived in the US.  Chances are many of your students’ families arrived before there were immigration requirements.  For about the first 100 years of our nation’s history, there were no rules on immigration (see our interactive timeline for reference) and it wasn’t until 1921 that Congress passed “The Emergency Quota Act” restricting the number of immigrants entering the US.  So the idea that everyone had to wait in line, especially our ancestors, isn’t exactly true. 
Furthermore, ask students if they are familiar with the rules about immigrating to the country now.  How does someone enter the country legally?  Most immigrants enter the US because a family member or employer sponsors them.  There are four ways to enter the country legally: 1) Family-based 2) Employment-based 3) Asylum and Refugee Status 4) Diversity Lottery (of which only 50,000 are given per year).   In short, the legal immigration process in the United States is complicated, lengthy, costly, and not available to most, especially those who are low-skilled and lack family connections (see this guide for a quick reference). 
5.      MYTH: If you came here illegally, you are probably a criminal or even a terrorist.
Ask students how they know this is true. Hearsay and anecdotal evidence are usually the culprits.  Numerous studies that the Immigration Policy Center has curated in its report show that crime rates in the United States fell as the size of the immigrant population (including the unauthorized) increased dramatically.  The crime rates didn’t just fall nationally, but also in cities with large immigrant populations.   Furthermore, immigrants are five times less likely to be in prison than the native-born, and when they are in prison, it is mostly like for immigration violations.  What Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Action will do is divert resources to border security and deporting immigrants who do not pass a background check rather than spend time and money in our courts and prisons on tracking down or keeping illegal immigrants in jails who are neither criminals nor terrorists. 
6.      MYTH: Executive action will encourage more “illegals” to come.
Ask students what they know about crossing the border.  Is it easy or dangerous?  Why would people risk their lives in order to come to the US?  According to U.S. Border Patrol data obtained by the National Foundation for American Policy, “immigrant deaths at the border rose by 27 percent in 2012.”  Additionally, “an immigrant attempting to cross illegally into the United States today is 8 times more likely to die in the attempt than about a decade ago.”  While Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Action strengthens border security, it is not likely to stop those who are willing to make a very dangerous journey in order to escape gangs, organized crime, and violence.   Ask students what would be some ways to curb the amount of immigrants approaching our border.  How would working with our countries help in this process?
7.      MYTH: While I feel badly, there’s not enough room for everyone to come.
Ask students where these illegal immigrants are coming from and how long ago did they arrive.  “Under the new policies announced, the Obama Administration will build on the successful Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by providing temporary relief for the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The new program, to be called Deferred Action for Parents Accountability (DAPA), will ensure that millions of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident children will remain unified with their parent.”  DACA eligibility will be expanded to cover all undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, and not just those born after June 15, 1981.  Under DAPA, individuals need to have been in this country for five years among other requirements.  In either program, explain to students that these immigrants are already here and have been here for some time.
8.      MYTH: Executive action will allow immigrants to take jobs away from Americans.
Ask students what kinds of jobs they think immigrants are competing for with native-born workers.  Immigrants and native-born workers often fill in for different types of jobs that require a different set of skills, with typically higher-skilled English-speaking jobs going to native born workers.  According to the Immigration Policy Center, the idea that one job can be swapped for another simply is not true as no correlation has been found between immigration and unemployment.  Authorizing legal working permits for currently undocumented immigrants will have no effect on the employment of native born workers. 
Secondarily, ask students what they think will happen when undocumented immigrants are able to work for higher, legal wages.  In a report produced by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, “the additional demand associated with the expanded economy would offset the additional supply of workers”; this is true even if these workers are highly skilled.  So in another words, more people working at higher, legal wages will increase the demand for all goods and services, thereby creating more jobs to produce these additional goods and services.  It is estimated in the same report that wages would increase by 0.3%.
9.      MYTH: Undocumented immigrants have never paid taxes, but they get benefits.
Ask students to explain how they pay taxes through sales tax.  Undocumented immigrants also pay sales tax every time they buy clothing, an appliance, gas, or food at a restaurant.  They also pay property tax, a main source of public school funding – even if they are renting, and in a report on US Immigration Myths and Facts, the US Chamber of Commerce states, “more than half of undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks.”  While undocumented workers already contribute $15 billion per year to Social Security, providing a way for immigrants to have legal working permits would help bolster Social Security because more legal workers would mean more people would be contributing payroll taxes to its trust fund, according to an analysis from the Social Security administration.   All in all, according to the US Chamber, “undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars each year in taxes.”  Also key to point out to students is that while undocumented immigrants can receive schooling and emergency medical care, they are not eligible for food stamps, welfare, or health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
10.  MYTH: Executive action will not affect me because I don’t know any immigrants in my community.*
Ask students to think about why an undocumented immigrant would not tell you of his or her immigration status.  It is estimated that there are 11.4 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.  Of that number the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 3.7 million will be eligible for DAPA, the parents of children who are citizens or legal permanent residents and have been here for at least five years, and another 1.5 million will be eligible for the expanded DACA, which allows young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to stay if they meet certain guidelines.  The other 6.2 million are not covered in this plan.  Chances are your students know both legal and illegal immigrants, but there are good reasons why both groups may remain silent.  Illegal immigrants do not want to risk deportation and some legal immigrants may fear not fitting into a mainstream idea of American culture.  Discuss with students ways you can welcome immigrants in your school and in your community.  You may even want to engage students in an immigrant interview project or a school-wide celebration of immigrant contributions to the US.  Please see our website at the American Immigration Council Community Education for ideas and lesson plans.

Lastly, our latest lesson plan "Just What Is Executive Action? A Lesson From the Principal's Desk" encourages students to collaboratively define executive action through inductive reasoning with a direct application to school. Designed to be relevant and rigorous, these lessons will produce lively, well-informed classroom discussions that lead to fuller understanding.

Thank you for the hard work you do daily with students! We welcome your feedback on how you use our lessons and materials as well as any concerns or questions you have.  Please add a comment or send an email to 


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