After President Obama in November announced plans to shelter millions of people from the threat of deportation, immigration officials wasted no time in carrying them out.
Thousands of young people who had applied for two-year reprieves from deportation instead were given three years free from the threat of being kicked out of the country. About 100,000 applications were approved before last month, when U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Texas ordered a freeze on Obama's executive actions on immigration.
Now, the administration's disclosure that it approved those applications has added yet another complication, and potentially weeks of more delays, to its attempts to restart the ambitious immigration initiatives. Hanen said in a filing this week that he wanted Justice Department lawyers to "fully explain" why they didn't mention the three-year permits before last week.
He set a hearing for March 19. In the meantime, plans for the immigration program remain on hold because of Hanen's order in a lawsuit filed by Texas and two dozen other states accusing the president of overstepping his authority to create what amounts to a new law without congressional approval. Hanen stopped the program while the lawsuit plays out.
"It's vital that we get to the bottom of the recent actions by the Obama administration, and this hearing will be key in obtaining the truth about what appears on its face to be the administration's clear misrepresentation of the facts in this case," said Cynthia Meyer, deputy press secretary for the Texas attorney general's office.
Obama announced last fall that he was using his executive power to grant three-year work permits and temporary protection from deportation to about 4 million adults who are parents of U.S. citizens and have lived in the country for at least five years. He said the program was simply an extension of his authority to prioritize immigration enforcement; the administration says there is no practical way to deport all 11 million people living here illegally.
Obama also said at the time that he would issue the same protections to a group of immigrants who came here as young people, an expansion of 2012's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. About 300,000 more people would be eligible under the expanded eligibility rules; the Homeland Security Department later announced it would begin accepting applications from those people starting Feb. 18.
However, the memo also said the change from two years of protection to three years would take effect immediately.
One of the people who received the three-year reprieve was Anel Rojas, 23, of Hayward, Calif. A community college student and volunteer at an immigration legal clinic, she applied for a DACA renewal in November and won approval in January.
"It plays a really big part in what I believe is my future," said Rojas, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 8. "I did have the motivation to be able to pursue something, but before DACA I saw a lot of barriers that I had to overcome." She says she needs to work to pay her school costs, but it was hard to get a job until she could get a Social Security number.
The current wrangling is over what Justice Department lawyers told the judge during recent hearings as scheduling matters were discussed. In January, lawyers said nothing would be happening before Feb. 18.
Last week, government lawyers, "in an abundance of caution," disclosed to Hanen that they had been granting the three-year permits since November to DACA applicants who qualified under the 2012 rules. The talk of the Feb. 18 date "may have led to confusion," said the brief signed by six Justice Department lawyers.
Lawyers for Texas and the other states said the actions were "difficult to square" with the lawyers' earlier statements in the case.
For the administration, the bottom line of the dispute may mean more problems in moving the case through the courts — and more trouble in getting the immigration program in place before Obama leaves office. The administration has asked Hanen to quickly decide on its request that he stay his order and allow the program to move forward.
Hanen has made clear his hostility to the executive actions, and the administration is anxious to move on and make its case at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. But the matter may remain in Hanen's court; the states have asked permission to dig further into the administration's moves.
On Tuesday, a Justice Department spokesman said attorneys were still considering what to do next.