In what's expected to be one of the most controversial moves of his administration's tenure, President Obama will announce an executive order on immigration this evening from the White House. As Vice President Biden now famously noted when the Affordable Care Act passed Congress, this too will be a big "f*****g deal."

The order is likely to grant legal status to nearly half of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., giving many access for the first time to legitimate work visas, or protection from deportation.

The move is likely to affect businesses in ways large and small. Here's a quick glimpse of what's at stake:


  • Republicans, empowered by their victory in the midterm elections, which gave them majorities in both the House and Senate, are spoiling for a fight. Enraged by what they consider an overreach of the president's authority, the executive order could trigger a government shutdown over the budget, which needs to pass next month. A shutdown could wreak havoc on small businesses that depend on government contracts, among others.
  • An executive order would not increase the number of H1B visas for highly skilled workers, but it could expand the ability of skilled employees to work here legally. That would be a boon to fast-growth, high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and other tech hotspots. These businesses are chronically short staffed for critical software engineering positions, for which they often depend on foreign workers. This summer, the White House floated some ideas for expanding the H1B visa program. "Good guesses are [there will be] something for immigrant entrepreneurs and work authorization for spouses of H1B visa holders," says Emily Lam, vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an active voice in the high-tech business community for immigration reform.
  • Businesses that depend on unskilled workers, such as agriculture and landscaping, may fare less well, as tonight's proposal may not protect them from deportation. Roughly half of the two million farm workers are undocumented, according to AmericanHort, an industry trade group.
  • The executive order would not allow the newly protected immigrants to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. It's unclear how that would play out for businesses with more than 50 employees, required to offer health care under the new affordable care law.

The immigration debate has been contentious for years. Both political parties realize the drawbacks with the current visa and green card system. Namely, it can take a decade or more for highly trained workers or immigrant entrepreneurs who create fast-growth companies and jobs to get long-term work status and citizenship. Last year, the Democratically controlled Senate passed an immigration reform bill that had strong bipartisan support. The Republican-controlled House let that bill expire without a vote.

Meanwhile, an executive action on immigration may not be the way to solve the glaring issues, according to some experts.

"I worry this will turn immigration itself into a poison pill," says Vivek Wadwha, an entrepreneur and researcher of public policy at Stanford Law School, and an Inc. columnist. "It [could] inflame tensions so much that it will damage prospects of any long term solution."