Immigration memo sparks controversy

U.S. immigration officials are exploring ways to allow certain unauthorized migrants to stay in the country legally through administrative actions rather than the logjammed legislative process, including potentially tens of thousands of students.

The ideas are detailed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials in an 11-page memo obtained and circulated this week by Sen. Charles Grassley (R- Iowa).

The memo explicitly states that deferring removal actions against an unrestricted number of illegal immigrants, allowing them to stay here legally, “would likely be controversial, not to mention expensive.” It suggested limiting that option to certain groups, such as youth who were illegally brought to the United States by their parents and now want to attend college or join the U.S. military.

In a statement this week, the immigration agency reiterated that the government did not intend to offer such remedies to the entire estimated 11.5-million illegal immigrant population.

The memo surfaced amid raging debate over illegal immigration as a federal judge this week blocked the most controversial elements of an Arizona law aimed at rooting out illegal migrants. Efforts to pass federal legislative reforms continue to falter.

In the absence of a system overhaul, the memo states, the immigration agency could use “administrative relief options to promote family unity, foster economic growth, achieve significant process improvements and reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization.”

Republicans denounced the memo as proof that the Obama administration is aiming to bypass Congress to legalize millions of illegal immigrants. Since June, Grassley and other Republican senators have sent two letters to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking for a response to reports of plans for a “large-scale, de facto amnesty.”

“The document provides an additional basis for our concerns that the administration will go to great lengths to circumvent Congress and unilaterally execute a backdoor amnesty plan,” Grassley told the Associated Press.

Immigrant advocates, who have pressed the administration for months to use executive actions given congressional delays in pushing forward a broad immigration system overhaul, praised the memo as a creative way to bring relief to suffering migrants.

“We have in the past seen many attempts to scour the law to find justification for draconian, and ultimately unhelpful, ways to make immigrants’ lives miserable,” David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. in Washington, said in a statement. “This draft document tries to think through ways to make the legal immigration system work in support of sensible law enforcement.”

Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said activists were pleased by the memo’s ideas as interim steps. But he said they prefer that efforts be focused on a broad overhaul that would, among other things, increase family visas and legalize most of the nation’s undocumented migrants.

In an interview with Fox News, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the memo and said the administration was still committed to comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress. A Homeland Security official called the memo “the beginning of a process … a brainstorming session.”

Among other suggestions, the April memo states that officials could potentially allow 50,000 students without legal status to stay in the United States through deferred action, which involves prosecutorial discretion not to pursue removal of an illegal migrant for a set period of time. Deferred action is currently being used in such cases as allowing Haitian nationals to remain in the United States until conditions improve in their earthquake-ravaged homeland.

The memo also suggested ways to give permanent residency to thousands of migrants with temporary protected status, which allows them to stay here while their homelands are endangered by natural disasters or war. Other ideas included softening standards that now bar illegal migrants who leave the country from returning for as long as 10 years.