Critics of President Obama's immigration policy have pounced on an internal government memo they say shows the administration is trying to circumvent Congress on immigration reform and avoid deporting some illegal immigrants.
An undated, internal draft memo by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services leaked Thursday outlines "administrative relief options to… reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization."
"In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform," it reads, "USCIS can extend benefits and/or protections to many individuals and groups by issuing new guidance and regulations."
The memo describes possible steps the agency could take to address the situation of the country's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, including granting some groups conditional legal residency.
One of the most controversial proposals in the document involves immigration courts showing greater leniency in some deportation cases by "deferring action"– possibly indefinitely.
"This would permit individuals for whom relief may become available in the future to live and work in the U.S. without fear of removal," the memo reads. It specifically suggests such a course be used for the estimated 50,000 undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children and could be eligible for a path to citizenship under the pending Dream Act.
While the federal government has long exercised discretion in immigration cases on an ad hoc basis, Republicans say using those tools more broadly would amount to "amnesty."
"The President has promised border security and immigration enforcement. He has said we must hold individuals accountable for their illegal acts," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top House Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "But now we find out the truth: while saying one thing to the public, the Obama administration is scheming to ensure that immigration laws are not enforced."
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has joined 11 other senators in pressing the administration for details on possible policy changes, said the leaked document "provides an additional basis for our concerns."
"The problem remains that if you reward illegality, you get more of it. Our first order of business must be to secure the border and enforce the laws on the books, not look for back channel ways to reward law breakers," Grassley said in a statement.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services press secretary Christopher Bentley responded to the accusations saying, "nobody should mistake deliberation and exchange of ideas for final decisions. To be clear, the Department of Homeland Security will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation's entire illegal immigrant population."
"Internal memoranda help us do the thinking that leads to important changes; some of them are adopted and others are rejected. Our goal is to implement policies wisely and well to strengthen all aspects of our mission," he said.
Administration Aims for Comprehensive Reform Package
The memo does acknowledge the political perils of pursuing some of the more controversial options it raises – including the prospect of having to ask Congress for funding.
"While it is theoretically possible to grant deferred action to an unrestricted number of unlawfully present individuals, doing so would likely be controversial, not to mention expensive," the memo reads. "Were USCIS to increase significantly the use of deferred action, the agency would either require a separate appropriation or independent funding stream" from Congress.
The White House has also signaled a reluctance to implement unilateral administrative policies that might jeopardize chances of bipartisan, comprehensive legislative reform.
After a group of illegal immigrant college students pressed the administration for an executive order to halt deportations of immigrant children brought to the U.S by their parents, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett told them Obama would not grant an executive order because he favored a legislative approach, participants in the meetings said.
The Obama administration has also not yet responded to an April request by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar for a moratorium on deportations of illegal immigrant students.
Meanwhile, statistics show the Department of Homeland Security deported a record number of illegal immigrants in 2009 and is on pace for a record number in 2010 – at the same time the number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. is down significantly.
On Monday, 1,200 National Guard troops will deploy along the southwest border to assist with enforcement operations there after President Obama authorized the move last month.
Still, immigration officials have made clear their priorities for internal enforcement operations do not include non-criminal aliens who have overstayed visas or crossed a border illegally.
"Immigration and Customs Enforcement is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities while we continue to work with Congress to enact reform," said DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler.
Obama Enforcement Priorities Mirror Bush's
A June 30 memo from ICE director John Morton articulates many of the same objectives highlighted in the leaked USCIS memo , including the need for "prosecutorial discretion."
"The rapidly increasing number of criminal aliens who may come to ICE's attention heightens the need for ICE employees to exercise sound judgment and discretion consistent with these priorities when conducting enforcement operations, making detention decisions, making decisions about release on supervision," the ICE memo reads. "Particular care should be given when dealing with lawful permanent residents, juveniles, and the immediate family members of U.S. citizens."
While the leaked internal DHS memo is making waves on Capitol Hill, it does reflect some of the same enforcement priorities implemented by the adminmistration of George W. Bush.
"You now have two presidents who basically have the same position on comprehensive immigration reform, and that's because you talk to the policy folks, and it's nearly impossible to do this piecemeal," said Nicole Wallace, former White House communications director for President George W. Bush.