The Obama administration issued a policy late last week telling immigration agents to try not to arrest and deport illegal immigrant parents of minor children — a move that adds to the categories of people the administration is trying not to deport.
In a nine-page memo issued Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said agents should use “prosecutorial discretion” to try to avoid detaining parents and, if parents are detained, agents should make sure they have the ability to visit with their children or participate in family court proceedings.
The move won praise from immigrant rights groups who said it’s a step toward a kinder detention policy. But a top Republican blasted the memo as another effort by the Obama administration to circumvent the law.
“President Obama has once again abused his authority and unilaterally refused to enforce our current immigration laws by directing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stop removing broad categories of unlawful immigrants,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
Mr. Goodlatte, whose committee is in charge of many of the immigration bills the House could consider this year and who is working on a legalization bill for young illegal immigrants, said the Obama administration’s move “poisons the debate” and shows that the president is trying to “politicize the issue” rather than work for a compromise bill.
It’s not clear how many illegal immigrants could be aided by the latest guidance, nor how many parents already in the deportation pipeline could be released or transferred.
However, some cases already bubbling up could be affected. Earlier this month, immigrant rights groups protested and managed to win a one-year stay of deportation for an illegal immigrant in Ohio who is the chief provider for his family, including a child with cerebral palsy.
The memo is the latest in a series of directives issued by ICE and by Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano that try to lay out priorities for whom the government will detain and try to deport.
Ms. Napolitano says her department is funded to deport about 400,000 immigrants a year out of an estimated population of 11 million. She said it makes sense to focus those deportation efforts on immigrants with serious criminal records or who have violated immigration laws repeatedly.
A year ago, she issued a policy granting tentative legal status to young illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, who call themselves Dreamers. That policy began accepting applications in August 2012 and as of the end of this July had approved legal status for more than 430,000 illegal immigrants.
ICE agents and officers sued to try to block the policies, but a federal judge in Texas last month turned down their case. The judge said they were probably correct in arguing that the law requires them to arrest illegal immigrants, but he said he didn’t have jurisdiction because it was a matter for collective bargaining, not for the courts.
Even as the memos draw criticism from some, immigrant rights groups are mounting a campaign asking Mr. Obama to expand his use of prosecutorial discretion to halt almost all deportations.
If Congress fails to pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants this year, pressure on Mr. Obama will intensify further.
The memo issued last week instructs ICE agents to give special consideration when they encounter an illegal immigrant who is a parent or legal guardian of a child.
“FODs shall continue to weigh whether an exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be warranted for a given alien and shall consider all relevant factors in this determination, including whether the alien is a parent or legal guardian of a USC or LPR minor, or is a primary caretaker of a minor,” said the new memo, known as the Family Interest Directive. FODs are field operations directors, LPRs are legal permanent residents and USCs are U.S. citizens.
Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, said the only long-term solution is for Congress to pass a bill but the new policy helps in the meantime.
“The Family Interest Directive is a major victory for children, reducing the likelihood that immigration enforcement will tear families apart and reducing the harm to kids when separation is unavoidable,” he said in a statement.