US & Canada

Are Hispanics satisfied with President Obama's executive action?

A woman and her son appeared in New York City on 20 November 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption More than 5 million people are said to be impacted by Mr Obama's immigration plan

President Barack Obama's prime-time immigration speech on Thursday night was one of the most-anticipated moments for the United States' large Hispanic community.

After six years of waiting for the president's promise to overhaul the country's immigration system, Latinos listened carefully as he announced sweeping measures to protect up to five million undocumented migrants from being deported.

Defying the wintry weather, many supporters met in front of the White House waving American flags and carrying signs that read "Gracias, Presidente Obama," while others gathered around the country to watch and discuss the announcement.

Hispanic advocacy organisations quickly reacted to the news. It was "a positive first step in putting our nation on a path that will benefit all Americans," according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

The unilateral actions are definitely important, not only for the Hispanic community but for the many families around the country who will be shielded from deportation.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Demonstrators outside the White House celebrated the announcement

A detailed look at President Obama's speech reveals that this is about much more than just immigration. It touches on highly sensitive issues for the United States, such as national security, border protection and economic development.

It also has the potential to influence not only Mr Obama's domestic agenda in his remaining two years in office, but more importantly the 2016 presidential campaign, where Democratic and Republican hopefuls will be vying for the increasingly influential Hispanic vote.

At the same time, though, Thursday's announcement is not a permanent change to what President Obama has called the country's "broken" immigration system, nor does it offer a path to citizenship.

Moreover, the move covers only a portion of the country's undocumented population (five million out of an estimated 11 million), and also falls short of the eight million that was mentioned as part of the 2013 bill that passed in the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Image copyright AP
Image caption People in Las Vegas cheered during Mr Obama's speech

Even though they can bring about important policy change, executive actions are by definition limited in scope and in time, and the White House knows that the only way that the system can be changed in a permanent way is through Congress.

Hispanic groups are aware of that too, and many have been pressing for broader action from both the White House and Congress.

Voto Latino, an organisation focussed on Latino youth, described President Obama's measures as "legally and morally right, but not enough," and added they were "deficient in its scope."

Meanwhile, Hector Sanchez, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, said he will "obviously continue to fight so that there can be a legislative solution."

"This move can spark Congress to finally act," he told the BBC shortly before President Obama's announcement.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption House Speaker John Boehner has denounced Mr Obama's use of executive authority

But it is precisely in Congress where Thursday's measures will face their biggest challenge.

Republicans have gained control of both houses of Congress and have promised to fight this executive action vehemently.

On Friday, John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters that Mr Obama had acted unilaterally "like a king or emperor" and vowed that his party would "rise to this challenge."

"With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek," Mr Boehner added.

The big question now is whether and to what extent Republicans will be able to block or delay President Obama from delivering his promise to millions of undocumented immigrants in the US.

Immigrants who have waited for six years for action may find themselves waiting longer.