Federal immigration agents will be able to give greater leniency to parents who get caught up in the immigration system, according to an Obama administration policy directive released on Friday.
Immigration agents already have the authority to not pursue certain low-priority immigration offenders, including those who are parents of minors. But a new policy would formalize and broaden the special recognition granted to parents who are picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The new memo is a reminder that agents can -- and should -- consider that the person they’re taking into custody might have a family, and that detention can have broader repercussions.
In particular, it says that federal immigration officials have the power to offer alternatives to detention for certain parents:
“It clarifies that ICE officers and agents may, on a case-by-case basis, utilize alternatives to detention for these individuals particularly when the detention of a non-criminal alien would result in a child being left without an appropriate parental caregiver,” said Brandon Montgomery, a spokesperson for ICE.
For example, that could mean that a person taken into custody of immigration officials could end up at a facility that’s closer to their home, instead of being placed in a more remote area.
The policy change does not give deportation relief to undocumented immigrants, but rather adds measures that could help parents who are detained or in the process of being deported.
One of the biggest changes is that it will designate an ICE officer to act a point person in each field office for cases involving parents of minor children.
In addition, officers will be asked to include details about a detainee’s family in the person’s case file.
The action could bring some degree of relief to those in the system, but does not change the overarching issues faced by separated families, according to Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC)
“It is really only addressing the symptoms,” she said. “The underlying problem, however -- the record number of detentions and deportations, and the number of parents and family that continue to get separated and ripped apart from each other -- is just unacceptable.”
But the move provoked Republicans, who called it a power grab by the Obama administration.
“President Obama has once again abused his authority and unilaterally refused to enforce our current immigration laws,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.) said in a statement. “This new directive from the Obama administration also poisons the debate surrounding immigration reform and shows that the administration is not serious about fixing our broken immigration system.”
Several weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned that if Republicans didn’t tackle immigration reform, Obama would use his executive power to do so.
This is nowhere near the scope of what Rubio was talking about -- legalizing the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants -- but it does show that small policy changes are possible even while an immigration reform bill is languishing in Congress.