Increase the use of "deferred action," the most controversial proposal in the memo because it would involve the government formally choosing not to pursue the removal of certain illegal immigrants who are deemed to be worthy of remaining in the U.S. because they have established ties in this country and have not committed any crimes.
President Barack Obama has come under fire from GOP lawmakers accusing his administration of pushing for backdoor "amnesty" for illegal immigrants after an internal draft memo surfaced this week that outlines myriad options that could benefit thousands of illegal immigrants.
The 11-page document, which an Obama administration official on Friday stressed does not represent official policy and includes ideas that aren't under active consideration, explores options that could be used to prevent immigrants in the country without authorization from being removed if Congress continues to stall on comprehensive reforms of the nation's immigration system.
GOP lawmakers say the memo shows the Obama administration is looking for ways to circumvent Congress to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. The memo on Friday fueled attacks by conservatives opposed to any form of legalization for illegal immigrants and may have created another stumbling block in Obama's effort to find bipartisan support for immigration reform.
Legal experts, however, said the memo shows the agency is trying to work within existing laws to improve the nation's broken immigration system.
"It's saying, 'Let's look at some reasonable measures we can take within the authority of the agency until Congress is able to make some major changes to the statute,' " said Lynn Marcus, co-director of the immigration-law clinic at the University of Arizona.
The memo was prepared for Alejandro Mayorkas, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency in charge of immigration benefits, by staffers from within the agency. Those included former Phoenix immigration attorney Roxana Bacon, now the agency's chief counsel.
The memo outlines options that could reduce the threat of deportation for some illegal immigrants or visa violators in order to "promote family unity, foster economic growth and achieve significant process improvements."
Some options offered:
• Let illegal immigrants granted temporary protected status after fleeing natural disasters in their countries apply for legal permanent residency if they qualify.
Currently, immigrants with temporary protected status cannot apply for legal permanent residency if they entered illegally. There are as many as 1 million people in the U.S. with the status. The status was most recently granted to illegal immigrants from Haiti in the wake of this year's devastating earthquake.
• Expand the use of "parole" to let certain illegal immigrants inside the United States apply for legal permanent residency for "urgent humanitarian reasons" or "significant public benefit."
• Increase the use of "deferred action," the most controversial proposal in the memo because it would involve the government formally choosing not to pursue the removal of certain illegal immigrants who are deemed to be worthy of remaining in the U.S. because they have established ties in this country and have not committed any crimes.
Once an illegal immigrant receives deferred status, he is eligible for work permits, but it doesn't help him gain legal permanent residency. Currently, deferred action is rarely granted. The government can renew the protected status for defined periods. Some immigrants have lived under the status for more than a decade.
Christopher S. Bentley, a spokesman for the CIS in Washington, D.C., declined to discuss the contents of the memo. But in a prepared statement, he said that internal draft memos should not be equated with official action or policy. He reiterated the Obama administration's stance that "comprehensive bipartisan legislation, coupled with smart, effective enforcement, is the only solution to our nation's immigration challenges." He also denied the agency is pursuing a backdoor amnesty, as some GOP lawmakers contend.
"To be clear, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation's entire illegal immigrant population," Bentley said.
There were an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the country in January 2009, according to the department.
Although it is possible to grant deferred action to an unlimited number of illegal immigrants, the memo acknowledges doing so would likely be controversial and expensive.
The memo suggests using it instead for particular groups such as people who might qualify for the Dream Act, a proposal in Congress that would grant legal permanent residency to individuals brought to this country illegally as children if they are attending college or serving in the military.
In a June 21 letter, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whose office uncovered the memo, and other GOP senators had asked Obama about rumors that his administration was considering a widespread use of "deferred action" or "parole" for large numbers of illegal immigrants. Grassley considers the idea "a large-scale, de facto amnesty program" and, in the letter, he and the other senators warned Obama that such a move "would further erode the American public's confidence in the federal government and its commitment to securing the borders and enforcing the laws already on the books."
Grassley and other senators followed up Monday with a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, seeking details about how her department was using the "deferred action" and "parole" authorities.
"Since we first wrote to the president more than a month ago, the administration has failed to reassure us that the information we were hearing was inaccurate," Grassley said in a written statement provided to The Republic.
"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.
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."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, called the memo disturbing. "I hope the Obama administration would first be exploring and implementing plans to secure our nation's borders and put an end to the daily operations of narcoterrorist groups in the United States," Brewer said.
"The accumulated impact of years of federal failure needs to stop. It is clear that Americans want the border secure first, and unilaterally granting amnesty only encourages additional lawlessness."