President Obama's new set of immigration policies could affect as many as 5 million people, including the possibility of a three-year reprieve from the threat of deportation for parents of children with legal status.
The new year will see those policies coming into effect, potentially creating dramatic changes for those who are in the U.S. illegally. Also ahead in 2015 are important shifts in how agents will enforce immigration laws to focus more on deporting people with lengthy or violent criminal records and less on people whose only crimes are immigration offenses.
The new approach will end the dragnet system that enlisted police in blowing the whistle on immigrants. These policies won't apply to most of the 11.2 million living in the country illegally.
And don't expect this to roll out without a fight. Republicans in Congress already have vowed to try to undo the new policies.
"This is a serious breach of our Constitution. It's a serious threat to our system of government," House Speaker John A. Boehner said as the plan was unveiled. But practically speaking, there is little they can do.
Republican governors in states affected by the new deportation policies have called out the lawyers. At least 24 states have filed suit to block the plan, and that case is expected to play out in the courts throughout 2015.
Here's a look at the plan and what we can expect:
Whom is the new plan designed to help?
Mostly immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally and who have children who are citizens (nearly all children born in the U.S. are automatically citizens) or permanent legal residents. To be eligible, people have to have been living in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010, and have no record of serious crimes that would make them a priority for removal.
A White House legal memo said this "would serve an important humanitarian interest in keeping parents together with children who are lawfully present in the United States." Approved applicants will get permission to stay for three years. As many as 4.1 million people could fit the criteria, the administration estimates. The application will cost $465.
What about people who came to the U.S. as children?
The program expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program begun in 2012 that has protected 587,000 young people from removal. The new rules do away with an age limit and open the program to anyone here since 2010, instead of the old cutoff of 2007. An estimated 300,000 more young men and women would be eligible.
Does this mean these people will become legal residents?
No. As laid out by Obama and Jeh Johnson, his Homeland Security secretary, the administration is using its discretion to not target these people. Absent other changes, such as a law passed by Congress, the people could again go into illegal status after their temporary reprieves expire.
Where are most of the people from, and where do they live now?
About two-thirds are from Mexico, the source of most immigrants to the U.S. The biggest share of the eligible parents, more than 1.1 million, lives in California, with the next biggest populations in Texas and Illinois.
What about the more than 6 million people who don't qualify?
Some arrived in the U.S. too recently to qualify, but most are excluded because they didn't have children born here. According to the Pew Research Center, which studies immigration, about 85% of people who live in the U.S. without authorization have been here for five years or more. That's because immigration has been down in recent years, said Jeff Passel, Pew's senior demographer. The biggest share of the people who've lived here long enough but don't qualify is single men, he said. Others are married without children. Some have children who were born elsewhere — for instance, parents of kids born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. as toddlers aren't eligible.
Is the new program open to parents of children who've already received a reprieve under DACA?
No. Administration lawyers decided that was a bridge too far and without legal basis, since there would be no family member with legal status in the U.S. — only children with a temporary relief order. That decision disappointed some immigration activists, who point out that those families could be split up.
If someone met these qualifications — in the U.S. for five years, with American-born children — but got deported, could they now apply to get back in?
No. Those cases are considered closed by immigration officials. As many as 250,000 to 300,000 people could fit that category, according to Randy Capps, director of research for the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. However, the new policy says that people who are subject to deportation actions — even those who have received final removal orders but are still in the U.S. — can apply to stay.
How will enforcement change under the new rules?
The administration says its top priority will be to go after border crossers and people considered dangerous, such as convicted felons and gang members. The second priority is people convicted of three misdemeanor crimes, or who have significant offenses such as domestic violence or drug trafficking.
At the bottom of the list are people who have committed no crimes other than illegally entering the country, particularly if they've been in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2014. The administration is doing away with the much-derided Secure Communities program, which enlisted police to hold unauthorized people on detainers for immigration agents. The government will still collect fingerprint data, though.
Who else could benefit from the changes?
Also in the works are changes to rules for granting visas for science and technology students, and to streamline the clunky and inflexible rules on work visas, to make it easier for people to change jobs without jeopardizing their immigration status.
Times staff writer David G. Savage contributed to this report.