Administration officials are beginning to ratchet up the pressure on Congress to pass controversial immigration-reform measures, but critics fear the changes are already being made without lawmakers' consent.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters on Monday the nation "desperately" needs to enact the Dream Act, which would prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants who are studying at American colleges and universities or have served at least two years in the military.
The legislation, which was drafted a decade ago, has faced strong opposition in Congress each time it's been reintroduced and stands little chance of passing this time around, especially with Republicans in control of the House.
But the administration has bypassed Congress and begun to relax its deportation protocol. In a June 17 memo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said agents should exercise "discretion" when deciding who can stay and who must go.
Special consideration should be given to military veterans, those who have graduated high school or are pursuing college degrees, the elderly, minors, pregnant women and those with serious health conditions, he said. An immigrant's "ties and contributions to the community" and his "ties to the home country and the conditions in the country" should also be weighed, according to the memo.
Mr. Duncan said the administration's top priority, when determining whom to deport, is "criminal behavior." He said ICE officials are "less interested" in students and other law-abiding residents.
Mr. Morton's memo instructs agents to consider a person's criminal history, as well as whether he is a national security threat or public safety concern, before making a decision on deportation.
The change has drawn fire from Republicans, and Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, plans to introduce legislation blocking selective deportations by ICE.
While that fight plays out, the administration is now trying sell the Dream Act by pointing out its economic benefits.
Mr. Duncan said the law would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next decade by allowing more illegal immigrants to stay in the country and pay taxes. He also said that continuing to deport talented people just because they're here illegally "doesn't make any sense."
"We want to continue to raise awareness. We want to push [the Dream Act] very, very hard this year," he said on a conference call, joined by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, and Margaret Stock, a former West Point professor.
The administration is also taking advantage of the media frenzy surrounding the revelation that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas isn't a U.S. citizen. Mr. Vargas revealed his secret in a piece for the New York Times Magazine.
"I wonder how many other potential Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists are out there who have never had the opportunity" to win the award because they're in the country illegally, Mr. Duncan said.
But tax revenue and Pulitzer Prizes aren't the only reasons to pass the Dream Act, the administration argued. Ms. Stock cited the "national security" threat caused by current immigration policy, specifically the looming "problem with military recruiting," which could be partially solved, she said, by allowing illegal immigrants to serve.
The administration's push will continue Tuesday when Mr. Duncan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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