Worried that illegal immigrants may feel “undue stress,” Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency has now deleted a standard warning to people that overstayed their visas that they ran the risk of being deported.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services‘ operations center issued the directive Wednesday, saying the agency is rolling back a Trump policy that anyone who applied but was rejected for legal immigration status should be referred for deportation, through what’s known in government-speak as an NTA, or Notice to Appear.
But in addition to canceling the policy, the operations center said it was also deleting the caution that being in the country illegally could mean deportation.
“This guidance will ensure the Agency is not placing undue stress on the customer who believes he/she may or may not receive an NTA based on the information provided in their denial notification,” read the directive, which was seen by The Washington Times.
The agency confirmed the move, saying it was carrying out an Inauguration Day change by the new administration revoking Trump-era moves, but suggested it was still in the early stages of working through the update.
“USCIS will issue additional implementation guidance on this issue in the near future,” the agency said.
Notices to appear are akin to a summons for immigration court, where a judge would rule on whether the migrant has the right to stay.
They are traditionally issued by agents and officers at Customs and Border Protection who encounter illegal immigrants at the border, and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who come across illegal immigrants in the interior.
But USCIS, as an immigration agency, has always had the same authority, and the Trump team in 2018 said it would begin to flex that power.
Those who applied for an upgrade in their immigration status but were deemed ineligible, and who were thus in the country without permission, were to be issued NTAs. People who overstayed visas were particular targets of the new policy.
It’s not clear how often people were actually issued NTAs.
The Washington Times inquired over the past couple of years about the data but was never provided any numbers, though experts said it’s unlikely many people were snared.
But Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the warning is still important as a statement of law, even if the Biden team wants to stop referring people for deportation.
“There’s no reason not to warn the rejected applicants that they are potentially removable, even if they are not a priority,” she said.
She also questioned USCIS’s use of the word “customer” to refer to people who, in this situation, end up being illegal immigrants because they filed bogus asylum cases, had criminal records that made them ineligible, or committed fraud.
“They brazenly tried to exploit our immigration system, but are to be treated as customers who must be treated gently, and definitely not be frightened by the suggestion that they should leave before they are removed,” she said.