U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with guarding the U.S. borders, has written a secret draft policy that would let its agents catch and release low-priority illegal immigrants rather than bring them in for processing and prosecution.
The policy, which has not been signed off on, would be the latest move by the Obama administration to set new priorities for the nation’s immigration services, and would bring CBP in line with other Homeland Security Department agencies that already use such “prosecutorial discretion.”
The policy was detailed in an internal memo obtained by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and reviewed by The Washington Times, which confirmed the document.
According to the memo, the draft policy “provides circumstances when to pursue enforcement actions … and includes detailed discussion of several factors CBP personnel should consider when exercising discretion.”
Opponents say it amounts to another “backdoor amnesty” for illegal immigrants and could give the administration a tool to pressure Border Patrol agents not to pursue some people.
“Rather than allow Border Patrol agents to do their job, the Obama administration instead would like them to roll out the welcome mat for illegal immigrants,” Mr. Smith said. “This ‘catch and release’ policy undermines border security, our immigration system, and CBP’s mission.”
President Obama has called for a broad immigration bill that would legalize most illegal immigrants, but with action in Congress unlikely, his administration has taken steps to try to rewrite enforcement priorities and shift deportation efforts away from rank-and-file illegal immigrants and toward gang members and those with extensive criminal records.
Those favoring a crackdown say that amounts to a de facto amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, while immigrant rights groups say he is setting records for deportations and that too many illegal immigrants without extensive criminal histories are being caught.
As part of its efforts, the administration last summer announced that it would grant broad prosecutorial discretion for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), a Homeland Security agency that enforces immigration laws in the country’s interior.
That policy, which lets the agency decline to prosecute or deport some illegal immigrants, has received mixed reviews. Crackdown supporters say it’s too lenient, while the immigrant advocates say it’s not applied fairly.
The new draft policy detailed in the memo would apply similar rules to CBP, and the chief effect could be to give Border Patrol agents discretion not to turn over illegal immigrants for prosecution.
CBP generally operates at official points of entry and along and near the U.S. borders, with authority stretching as much as 100 miles away from an international boundary. ICE is responsible for the interior, and for most deportations.
Advocates said it makes sense to have the two agencies’ policies match.
“It’s a bit odd to have that huge function in terms of patrolling the borders and some of the enforcement activities that take place just this side of the border not be part of the same policy — it’s frankly just kind of odd,” said Laura L. Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
She said the draft policy shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to stop enforcing immigration laws, but rather as guidelines for how the laws can best be applied, given resources and priorities.