Federal immigration authorities have begun granting tentative legal status to illegal immigrants under President Obama’s deportation halt — and in some cases are even ignoring the administration’s eligibility rules to stop deportations for those who shouldn’t qualify, according to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said he’s learned some illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. less than five years have had their deportations canceled, even though Mr. Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano had listed the five-year mark as one of their criteria.
Mr. Smith also obtained documents laying out how U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) officers should actively search for illegal immigrants who are “apparently eligible” to have their cases dropped. Those illegal immigrants then would be granted tentative status.
“President Obama is granting amnesty to illegal immigrants behind Americans’ backs,” Mr. Smith said. “Although administration officials told congressional offices that it would take 60 days to implement the president’s amnesty plan, internal ICE documents show that illegal immigrants have already benefited from it, even though there are no standards in place.”
The Washington Times reviewed the documents, which also included an ICE memo telling illegal immigrants to contact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that will judge most of these cases, and which is not taking requests until Aug. 15.
The agency didn’t return a call seeking comment, but ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the policy was always intended to apply immediately to illegal immigrants already in the deportation system — which are the ones ICE deals with.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will eventually put in place a more formal process for illegal immigrants to come forward and proactively head off deportation.
Ms. Christensen said ICE will end up with a relatively small share of the eventual cases, and their review is easier because the agency already had begun using broad prosecutorial discretion last year.
“ICE is only reviewing cases for deferred action of individuals that are currently in removal proceedings or who were/are part of the agency’s larger prosecutorial discretion review,” she wrote in an email.
Obama’s new orders
Last month, Mr. Obama and Ms. Napolitano said they would unilaterally halt deportations for illegal immigrants who would have qualified for the Dream Act — legislation that never passed Congress but would have granted a path to citizenship to many illegal immigrants age 30 and younger.
To avoid deportation under the new rules, illegal immigrants would had to have been brought to the U.S. by age 16; graduated high school or earned an equivalency degree; not been convicted of major crimes; and been in the U.S. for at least five years.
Those granted a stay of deportation are given permission to work in the U.S. — which could lead to hundreds of thousands of new, legal workers entering the economy.
The program has come under fire from both sides. Some immigrant-rights activists have said they’d be reluctant to recommend illegal immigrants come forward, saying the program doesn’t yet have the kinds of assurances they need.
Critics on the other side, meanwhile, say it’s drawn too broadly. They also wonder what proof ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers will ask for. The ICE guidance Mr. Smith obtained doesn’t lay out any standards for those documents, and he said that’s an invitation to fraud.
He also said he has learned ICE has halted deportations for illegal immigrants the agency knows have been in the U.S. for less than five years.
“Amnesty has been granted to those who have been here for a shorter or even unknown period of time,” Mr. Smith said.
Ms. Christensen, the ICE spokeswoman, said the agency has broad authority to halt deportations on a case-by-case basis, even when illegal immigrants fall short of the new standards, especially in “humanitarian” cases in which the people in question were brought to the U.S. as children.
“As part of ICE’s overall effort to focus the immigration system on public safety threats, border security and public safety, and in keeping with the spirit of the secretary’s memorandum, deferred action has been granted on a case-by-case basis to some individuals whose cases may differ from the specific criteria set forth in the memorandum,” Ms. Christensen said.
As for documents, she said ICE officers are already trained in what documents to ask for and how to evaluate them as part of their jobs. Acceptable documents they can request include passports, visas, school or medical records, and leases, she said.
Deciding who stays
Part of Mr. Obama’s dilemma on immigration is that Ms. Napolitano has said the U.S. has the resources to deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants a year, which means it has to live up to that level.
The president has tried to focus deportation efforts on Illegal immigrants with criminal records and had made progress in his first two years in office. But the latest statistics showed backsliding this year.
In fiscal year 2012, which began Oct. 1, about 49 percent of all illegal immigrants deported didn’t have criminal records. That’s up from about 44 percent last year — and the change had immigrant-rights advocates furious.
ICE said it’s trying to focus its priorities, and said even though criminal deportations are down slightly, most of the noncriminals are still important targets for deportation.
Of the more than 143,000 noncriminal illegal immigrants removed from Oct. 1 to June 23, nearly half had repeatedly violated immigration rules, and more than 49,000 others were recent entrants who were removed at the border.
A little fewer than 5,000 illegal immigrants, or less than 2 percent of the total, were rank-and-file illegal immigrants who didn’t fall into any of the administration’s target categories.